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HomeTop Stories On TurkeyWritten by his cellmate: 'Days in Silivri Prison with Turkish Novelist Ahmet...

Written by his cellmate: ‘Days in Silivri Prison with Turkish Novelist Ahmet Altan’

I dwelt upon before this article. Because, we had a motto, “What happens in Silivri, stays in Silivri”, but since the virtuoso included our memories in his book, which was published in German, I have decided to enter through the door.

Ahmet Altan, as everybody knows, is an inconvincible polemicist brave heart, who always has the courage of his convictions, He is a journalist and novelist. He started his journalism adventure in Hurriyet, and made his way into being the chief-editor of Taraf newspaper. He played a unique role towards regressing the military domination. However, this was not left unpunished. While he was seen as “the man who destroyed the military domination” first by his colleagues in Hurriyet, he was accused of “conspiracy” after the power in the country made alliance with the people behind the Ergenekon case.

Actually he was not the target. He was all through with everything and was writing about his novel at home. However, he couldn’t just wait without doing anything, and he broke his silence after he witnessed the arrest of Mehmet Baransu, a fellow writer in the newspaper, attacks on Taraf, and the closures of free media channels one after another. He went live on television, and started with his high level criticism with his husky voice.

He was the guest of the television program hosted by Nazli Ilicak and Mehmet Altan one day before the coup attempt. He both talked about his final novel, and also expressed how he was concerned about the course of events on the program. And regrettably, that was the program which caused him to receive the aggravated life imprisonment verdict. His case is now in the Supreme Court.

Ahmet Altan, who was taken into custody 50 days after the July 15th coup attempt together with his brother, Mehmet Altan, was detained 12 days in jail in the police station. Then he was brought into court. While he was released, his brother got arrested. Ahmet Altan, who saw his brother getting arrested, made a statement right in front of the courthouse. Police knocked on his door once again around the evening hours. He was taken into custody, but this time, he was arrested.

I have never had a cooperation with him before, however, he was a senior member of my profession whom I was watching with admiration. There were discussion programs during the first years of the private television channels. The people, who got bored of the routineness of TRT and its broadcast which kept its nose always clean, would watch these programs with great interest.

Ahmet Altan was a moderator of one of these programs. Also, he was preparing the program called “The Red Chair” with Nese Duzel. Thereafter, he had made some challenging and catchy headlines during his time in Taraf.


I had a chance to meet him only in prison. He welcomed me like a friend of 40 years, hugged, and presented his sympathies after getting released out of the solitary confinement to three-man wards. I remember our first chat, it was about physics and metaphysics.

I threw myself on his mercy and told him “You asked for it. While you had a chance to sit and write your novel in your warm home, you threw yourself out and defended the freedom of media”. He was never regretful about what he had done. I observed that Ahmet Altan was ready to pay the price for standing on the right spot, he was smiling.

He never backed down during his hearings. He stood firm behind the news about Ergenekon and Balyoz cases. That is why, the people behind Ergenekon, have never forgiven Ahmet Altan. Whenever they have the chance, they spill out their hatred against him. Even his imprisonment cannot ease them off.

He was always approaching July 15th with suspicion, he was seeing dark spots. He just could not get figure out a coup attempt happened during the evening hours, when the people were still on the streets. He explained 10 similarities between 31 March and 15 July. No leaders existed in both attempts. Very little of the army, around 3 thousand soldiers were used in both incidents. Altan always believes that another country was behind 31 March, because the Ottoman Empire went into the orbit of this country. He thinks that whoever took advantage of 15 July is the one who carried out the coup attempt.


He made evaluations about philosophy often during our stay together for 15 months. His bedside book was a philosophy dictionary. He was always reading and taking notes. The publishing houses were sending recently published books to him.
There was a tremendous attention from abroad. His defenses were being read in halls, and his books were being translated into foreign languages. In fact, he signed an agreement for his book to be turned into a screenplay.

Ahmet Altan adored his father. He said he always tried to make his father like him. He always reminded Cetin Altan’s quote, “We tell our most secret thing in the middle of Taksim Square”. In other words, he explained that they never had anything to hide, he always fought with his pen, and stayed away from the movements on the street and political formations.

He had 300 cases, just like his father. There were new lawsuits against him even when he was in prison. Most of them were about “offense of libel”, and they were pointing out the criticism he had in his articles and speeches. This is an exemplary about the present situation in Turkey.

His father had been sent to prison after the memorandum on 12 March 1971, and served 3.5 years. He always told proudly about his father’s defense before the court-martial with his husky voice, and the way he walked amongst the soldiers with his head held high.

Ahmet Altan was close to 70 years old when he was imprisoned. He said the following in the court: “For 3-5 years ahead of me, I cannot cast away tens of years I left behind”. There was a title in his most recent book: I Will Not Be Able to See the World Ever Again.

He wanted his children, grandchildren, and his readers to see him standing upright. His addressee was not the court, Ahmet Altan was making history. I followed his hearing in the Court of Appeals after he was released. When Ahmet Altan started his defense, the hall was filled with people. Even the personnel of the courthouse arrived to the hall to witness this historical moment. The panel of judges were all ears. I remember saying the following in summary: “A state can be without soldiers or police, but it cannot be without a judge. You are the bones of this country. This state is collapsing. It is in your hands to keep the skeleton together.”


Ahmet Altan would design his article first in his mind and then sit on the table, and would not get up before he finished. While he would pace up and down, he would always look thoughtful, because he would design his article in his mind. I remember him writing 7-8 consecutive hours without standing up. He would not wait to infuse his article. Sometimes he would read his defenses to us, and receive opinions.

He reduced the number of cigarettes he smoked in prison. However, when he would write, he would just light one after another. Of course, accompanied with coffee. This way, he completed the writer-cigarette-coffee trio.

He was never interested in the politicians. He has never expected anything from the leaders, nor did he salute them. He is without obligations. And with the power he received from this, he strongly opposed any kind of tutelage.

He had mentioned that he had met with some leaders because of the insistent invitations. For example, he had met with Tayyip Erdogan twice. First one was when Erdogan was elected Metropolitan Mayor of Istanbul. He had told Erdogan in dinner: “This nation is less dependent to religion than you think. When they get angry, the first thing they say would be “don’t make a saint swear”.

He was very hopeful about the alliance between the religious and the liberals. He supported the efforts towards the EU perspective, regression of the military domination, and expanding the fundamental rights and freedoms.

However, he was disappointed after 2013, when the power in the country started to ostracize the supporting groups after they adopted an authoritarian and oppressive governing.

Our conversation was an interesting mixture. One atheist, and two Muslims, we were in the same ward 24 hours. I choose to call him agnostic instead an atheist. I would take over after he would say “A village cannot be without a chief, how was the rest…?” and finish, “A sewing needle cannot be without a tailor. How is it possible for such a magnificent, wonderful, and endless universe to be without a creator?” There is a creator, but we would think differently about the qualifications of this creator.

It was not easy for three people, who had 15 years of age difference, and different temperaments, styles, and home towns, to stay in the same room for 24 hours every day. It required a great deal of maturity and self-sacrifice.

The lawyers and the politicians, who came to visit Ahmet Altan, would ask the same question. “Do they really pray five times a day, how do you stay, isn’t it difficult for you?” When I heard them, I would think that I was an alien. On the other hand, I could see how the people were becoming estranged. Altan would only laugh about it. The writer of the legendary articles such as “Azan”, and “Oh My Tribe” did not have such problems. He always showed respect to the people who believed or not. However, he could not understand a conception of a religion without morals, or the cruelty of the people who call themselves religious.


In one instance, the guardians wanted to take a blanket away which was put under a prayer rug, claiming it was extra. He gave them a lesson about freedom of belief, and eventually they left without taking the blanket away. While they were leaving, he was mumping like “Look at the work of Allah, defending the rights of the religious is left to me, even under the reign of the Islamists.”

Ahmet Altan was the nameless leader of our ward. Last word belonged to him. He would be happy and also get sad together with us. He would get upset the most when he would hear our relatives getting arrested. He would say “These people agonize our families”.

One day, he saw my daughter during a non-contact visit, and he called her “Meryem”. After a while, we found out that my daughter had been arrested. When he saw me upset, he protested it by saying “How is it possible for a 22 year old child to be a plotter?” To show that he is right beside me and comfort me even more, he said “When Meryem is released, I will perform a prayer for gratitude”. He always asked about her when she was in prison, and he even wanted to help with her defense.

My daughter had been released after 5 months. I could read in his eyes how happy he was when my daughter thanked him during an open visit. Months passed, but he did not perform the prayer for gratitude he promised about. My wife was informed about this matter, and she saw it like a password. It was like, when he performs this prayer, all of us would be released.

Finally I said, “Okay, I get it, you will not perform the prayer. At least do a prostrate for gratitude”. He answered, “No, I will keep my promise”. Indeed, we, the three of us, performed the prayer for gratitude together and thanked The Creator. I was released not long after, but my ward-mates are still in prison.

It is a huge shame to keep such a bright author in prison. This case is being followed very closely throughout the world, and they cannot make sense of it. Despite the fact that Ahmet Altan sees the 2.5 years he spent in prison more fertile than the 68 years he left behind, such a prolific pen should be writing in freedom. We long to see him again, wishfully.

This article first appeared at Kronoshaber.com in Turkish and translated by Politurco.

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Ibrahim Karayegen is a journalist and former editor of Turkish Daily Zaman


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