Istanbul has long been special to me, the place where I fell in love 30 years ago with the woman I would marry, drinking mint tea at a small café by the Ortakoy Mosque in the shadow of the Bosphorus Bridge. Now I’m back — to visit a renowned Turkish journalist and old friend in prison.
I have come to deliver the Mehmet Ali Birand Lecture, an annual event organised by the press freedom group P24. Ahmet Altan was the speaker at the first of these lectures in 2014. He cannot attend my talk, as he has been imprisoned for 590 days. His crime? To speak a few words on a television programme just before the failed 2016 coup, interpreted as treasonous by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
The lecture, at the Swedish Consulate General, is attended by writers and journalists who are yet to be imprisoned. Murat Sabuncu, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, who was sentenced in April to seven and a half years on terrorism charges but released on bail pending appeal, opens with an impassioned salute to the journalists still under arrest. My lecture is dedicated to Ahmet. “We know how words are apt to be interpreted in different ways,” I say, a point of connection between lawyer and writer, “and we know too that is their beauty, and their danger.”
The dangerous words spoken by “my dear, absent friend” caused a judge to rule that Ahmet, who is 68, will spend the rest of his life in prison. “We will never be pardoned and we will die in a prison cell,” Ahmet wrote recently in the New York Times.
The atmosphere at the consulate is one of grim resolve. The situation is bad, and may yet get worse. My Turkish friends know all about gallows humour and they want a good laugh. The magical words “Boris Johnson” come to the rescue, offering a winning combination of Turkish heritage, a poem about Erdogan’s adventures with a goat, and a visit to Turkey in which Johnson contrived to say nothing in support of press freedom and much about his Turkish washing machine. These days, to be a travelling Brit is a constant encounter with mirth, perplexity and commiseration — and incredulity too, that Erdogan would not only be feted by Theresa May for his commitment to human freedoms and trade deals, as he defends the mass imprisonments (“the terrorists will not make good journalists”), but would even have tea with the Queen.
I travel the following day to the maximum-security prison at Silivri, two hours from Istanbul. I am with Yasemin Congar, who runs P24 and is Ahmet’s close friend. Ahmet is incarcerated here along with his kid brother Mehmet, an economist fired from Istanbul University, where he had taught for 30 years. Yasemin hasn’t been allowed to visit Ahmet — she gets 10 minutes on the phone, every fortnight — and nor has any foreigner. I am the first allowed in, because I represent the brothers at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The facility is huge and forbidding, holding 11,000 prisoners. Accompanied by a Turkish lawyer, I pass through at least eight security checks and am taken by minibus to Block 9. I am required to have my eyes scanned, to be integrated into “the system”. One of the guards is friendly and wants to talk football. He’s worked here for four years without encountering a foreigner. We have a short, happy conversation about Arsène Wenger, Mesut Ozil (who, much to my sadness, is later photographed handing over an Arsenal shirt to Erdogan) and what it means to be Turkish.
I meet first with Mehmet, genial and gentle, twinkly eyes and a full Karl Marx beard. He is thrilled to talk in French, surprising me with ideas about globalisation and the English Luddite movement, on which he has ample time to write. He shares a cell with two other men, one of whom is a former student. Mehmet is perplexed by his situation, and the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. A life sentence is “like living without clocks, in endless time”.
Mehmet leaves, I wait and then Ahmet arrives in our glass-panelled cell. He looks fit. “Weights!” he chortles. We spend most of our 30 minutes roaring with laughter. “No,” he says, Turkey has not hit rock bottom yet. “We are a nation of bungee-jumpers, and just before we hit the ground we somehow manage to bounce up again.”
We talk about food, politics, his prison memoir (“a rite of passage for any writer”), the quality of the grass in my garden in London, and my neighbour, the magistrate who signed the arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet in 1998. Today Ahmet marvels even more at the idea of justice being dispensed by a judge who is independent.
What do you want the readers of the FT to know, I enquire? We talk of the judge who sentenced him, he of the “swollen eyelids”. Ahmet knows I have a special interest in judges, especially those of the less independent kind. Later I discover that his name is Judge Kemal Selcuk Yalcin. Did you ever catch his eye, I ask? “Just once: ‘I am the powerful one now,’ his eyes said, ‘and the power I can exercise will crush you.’ ”
It is quite something to spend a little time with a writer who has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, on trumped up charges, and who can laugh about it. And something else to leave that prison cell with an unexpected feeling of elation, motivated by the sheer, towering greatness of the human spirit.
Philippe Sands QC is a professor of law at University College London and president of English PEN