SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: September 10, 2016

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Istanbul University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On September 10, 2016, Turkish authorities detained Istanbul University economist Mehmet Altan, along with prominent journalist Ahmet Altan, based on accusations that they were involved in organizing a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

Following the coup attempt, Turkish authorities declared a national state of emergency, which has been extended repeatedly, and remains in effect as of this report. Authorities allege that members of a movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen are behind the coup attempt, and have accordingly taken a range of actions against members of the higher education community (among others) which they claim are intended to identify those parties involved, and/or to eliminate the Gülen movement’s influence within Turkish institutions.

Mehmet and Ahmet Altan have both reportedly published columns critical of Turkish authorities. Mehmet Altan has argued in his scholarship that Turkey needs to re-constitute itself as a “Second Republic” whose identity is based not on race or religion but on democratic principles. Ahmet Altan, who was the founding editor-in-chief of the left-liberal newspaper Taraf until 2012, has been previously prosecuted and jailed for his writings, including being sentenced to 14 months in prison in 2012 on charges of defaming then-Prime Minister Erdoğan.

One day before the coup attempt, Mehmet and Ahmet Altan were accused of sending “subliminal messages suggesting a military coup” during their appearance on the program “Özgür Düşünce” (“Free Thought”) on Can Erzincan TV. The brothers reportedly made on-air comments criticizing and questioning the stability of President Erdoğan’s government, which prosecutors allege demonstrated foreknowledge of the coup. Authorities have since shut down Can Erzincan, which they alleged was supportive of Fethullah Gülen.  Ahmet and Mehmet Altan have been kept in pretrial detention on charges including “attempting to prevent the Turkish parliament from carrying out its duties or completely abolish it,” and “committing a crime on behalf of an armed terrorist group without being a member of it.”

A prosecutor has sought aggravated life sentences for both Mehmet and Ahmet Altan, and their first court appearance will be on June 19 2017.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detentions and prosecutions in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct which is protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a party. While state authorities have a right to maintain order and respond to legitimate security concerns, such actions must comply with States’ human rights obligations, including those relating to freedom of association, due process, and academic freedom. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On November 4, 2019, İstanbul’s 26th Heavy Penal Court ruled to acquit Mehmet Altan of all charges and to release his brother, Ahmet Altan, and another co-defendant, Nazlı Ilıcak. Ahmet Altan and Ilıcak had been sentenced to ten years six months and eight years nine months imprisonment, respectively. The two were released on probation. Three more co-defendants — Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek, and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül — remain in prison after being convicted of “membership of a terrorist organisation.”

UPDATE: On November 12, 2019, Ahmet Altan was re-arrested after prosecutors successfully appealed the decision to release him on bail. He remains imprisoned as of this update.