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Ahmet Altan will see the world again

Copyright Philippe Dupuich

Last November 4th, to our greatest joy, we learned that Turkish journalist and writer Ahmet Altan, incarcerated since 2016 and condemned to life imprisonment in 2018, was freed and placed under judicial supervision. Timour Muhidine, a specialist in modern Turkish literature, director of the series, "Lettres turques” at Actes Sud and a lecturer at l’INALCO, goes over this liberation.

Over a period of a few months, Ahmet Altan was sent to prison for life, then liberated. Were you expecting this?

No, I was very surprised, and I wasn’t the only one. Many of us hoped for this liberation, given Ahmet Altan’s age and the last three years he spent behind bars. But we weren’t expecting it to happen this soon. I must confess that, seen from the outside, this affair is very “bizarre.” How can one condemn a man to life imprisonment in February, accusing him of having “helped a terrorist group,” then condemn him in November to 10-1/2 years of prison before ordering him to be liberated under judicial supervision? We have here a demonstration of the Turkish government reproaching intellectuals of everything or any old thing, after having unleashed a reign of terror in July 2016, intended to break individuals. Undoubtedly, the goal was to inject fear and reduce the opposition to silence.

According to you, what motivated this liberation?

Two key elements seem to have contributed to this liberation: on the one hand, a change in the Turkish Constitution with an amnesty law and a reduction in prisoners’ sentences, on the other hand, the government’s desire to restore its international image. I read this week in the Turkish newspapers that a spokesperson (who remains anonymous) of the AKP party has declared that the government wants to change its bad image in the world. It wants to rehabilitate its reputation on the outside.

However it is important to specify that it is a liberation under judicial supervision. Ahmet Altan cannot leave the country, his passport hasn’t been returned and there is the sword of Damocles above his head. He could return in prison tomorrow to serve his 10-1/2 years sentence.

So there’s a permanent menace, despite this liberation…

The big lesson learned these last years in Turkey is that everything is unpredictable. A crushing blow can come anywhere, at any time. The threat is widespread. It is a new form of political domination, as in Russia. Since it is, above all, the social networks that are under surveillance, one word, written or spoken, can lead to arrest. But the limit of what one can or cannot do isn’t clearly defined. It remains very difficult to act on the spot and there must be a lot of talent and resilience to fight from the inside, to write like Ahmet Altan has done these last months in prison. His account, I Will Never See The World Again (Je ne reverrai plus le monde) makes me think of Chalamov’s Récits de la Kolyma that I am reading now. It’s an exceptional book about resistance.

Translated from French to English by Sally Gordon-Mark​

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