On 3 December 2018 the first edition of FREE THE WORD! took place, the new annual event at which PEN Belgium/Flanders gives the stage to writers in prison. Apart from performances by Hoshang Ossi and PEN flat guest Haile Bizen, a testimony about Zehra Dogan and a conversation with Enoh Meyomesse, we also presented our two new honorary members: Ahmet Şik and Ahmet Altan, both from Turkey.
Ahmet Şık (Turkey, 1970) is first and foremost an investigative journalist. He is the author of six non-fiction books, and each of them offers a critical analysis of political misconduct and corruption in his country. He wrote about the Gülen movement and how it was able to become so powerful, in part by the leading AKP, the party of President Erdogan. The same Gülen movement is now called a terrorist organization by the rulers and has been accused of masterminding the failed coup of July 2016.
Ahmet Şık was arrested and imprisoned in December 2016. The first three days without food and drink. The first eight months in solitary confinement and without knowing of what he had been accused. His case was added to that of Cumhuriyet, the newspaper that he worked for.
On March 9 of this year Ahmet Şık was temporarily released from prison. He had been imprisoned for 433 days. On April 25 the final verdict was pronounced in the Cumhuriyet case. Fifteen of the eighteen defendants of the newspaper were convicted. Ahmet Şık himself was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison. That sentence still has to be confirmed by the Supreme Court. It did not stop Şık from standing as a candidate for the parliamentary elections in June. Today he is a representative of the HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, in the Turkish parliament.
BIO: Ahmet Şık is an award-winning Turkish investigative journalist and author. He has been writing for 25 years about human rights and corruption in the government and security services in Turkey. His book The Imam's Army about Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen movement was confiscated by the Turkish police and banned in 2011. He was arrested and imprisoned, and finally released.
Ahmet Altan (Turkey, 1950), our second honorary member, is in the first place a writer. Experts say he is Turkey's best contemporary novelist. Altan is the author of five collections of essays and nine novels.
On September 23, 2016, in the aftermath of the failed coup, Ahmet Altan was arrested. He was accused of “having given subliminal messages to encourage the coup planners". Together with him, his brother Mehmet, an economist and journalist, and four other journalists were arrested.
On 11 January 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the arrest of the Altans was unconstitutional and that they should be released. "No one should be in prison on the basis of an allegation like this one," the judge ruled. For a moment hope flickered. But the same day a lower court decided to ignore this verdict, and the Altan brothers remained in their cell.
The verdict came on 16 February 2018. The session took place in the courtroom in the Silivrigi prison where the final sessions of the Cumhuriyet process had taken place as well. But in contrast to that process, there was not a single sympathizers present for the Altan brothers. Apart from the defendants and the lawyers, the large room was empty. There was just one observer, seated at the back of the room in a small stand. That observer was Sarah Clarke of PEN International.
That day Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, together with a third journalist, were sentenced to an unconditional life imprisonment with an extra strict prison regime. Ahmet’s brother Mehmet was released in September 2018. Ahmet wasn’t. His sentence was confirmed after an appeal in September. He was sentenced to solitary confinement and can only leave his cell for an hour a day. Once every two weeks he is allowed to receive a one-hour visit from an immediate family member and a one-hour visit from a lawyer. Once every fortnight he can call with a member of his family.
In May 2019, publisher De Bezige Bij will publish the essay collection I will never see the world again, in which Altan writes about his arrest and life in prison. The collection appeared earlier in Spain, Germany and Italy and an English translation will be published in the spring of 2019. For the time being, the book will not appear in Turkey.
BIO: Ahmet Altan is one of Turkey's most read writers and an influential political opinion leader. He was one of the first Turkish intellectuals to recognize the Armenian genocide. In 2009 Altan received the Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media by the Media Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig. He received the International Hrant Dink Award in 2011, the Freedom of Thought and Expression Prize in 2013 and the Istanbul Human Rights Association Freedom of Thought and Expression Prize in 2017.
For more information please see: https://penvlaanderen.be/