The International Press Institute (IPI) welcomed a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling yesterday, April 13, finding that Turkey had violated the rights of Ahmet Altan, a prominent writer and journalist with the now-shuttered Taraf newspaper. Altan has been jailed for four-and-a-half years over his alleged links to the now-outlawed Gülen movement and articles critical of the government.

ECtHR found a violation of Article 5 § 1 (lawful arrest or detention), Article 5 § 4 (on account of the lack of access to the investigation file), Article 5 § 5 (right to compensation for unlawful detention) and of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights and ruled Turkey to pay 16,000 Euros to Altan in respect of non-pecuniary damage. However, it found no violation of Article 18 (limitation on use of restrictions on rights), which bars states from restricting rights for illegitimate and politically motivated reasons. Judge Kuris, partly dissenting to the Court’s ruling on Article 18, stated that there are clear patterns on accounts of both the Turkish state with repressive measures against the members of the media and the ECtHR which insist on not examining the journalists’ cases under Article 18 and called the Court not to turn blind eye to the whole picture.

While the ruling is welcome, it must now be followed by Altan’s immediate release, IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavas said.

“This judgment offers further evidence of the ongoing erosion of fundamental rights and crackdown on journalists in Turkey, and confirms that the arrest of Ahmet Altan was unlawful and a violation of Turkey’s commitments under international law”, she said.

“Turkish authorities must respond to this ruling by releasing Ahmet Altan without delay.”

In its judgment, the ECtHR stressed that Turkish authorities could not refer to any concrete evidence capable of suggesting that Altan was instructed to manage specific editorial policies or to publish specific articles to manipulate public opinion as claimed by Turkey. In regard to Altan’s articles, the ECtHR noted that they were “written as part of journalistic activity and cannot be construed as grounding a reasonable suspicion that the applicant had committed the offences in question”. As a result, the ECtHR found that in the light of facts submitted to the case and its observations, Altan could not “have been reasonably suspected, at the time of his placement in detention, of having committed the offences of attempting to overthrow the Government or to prevent it from discharging its duties, of being a member of a terrorist organisation or of committing an offence on behalf of an illegal organisation without being a member of it.”

In addition, the ECtHR stated that the interference with Altan’s freedom of expression could not be justified as it found Altan’s detention had not been based on reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offence, and therefore constituted an unlawful detention.

Altan was arrested in 2016 in the midst of a severe crackdown by Turkish authorities following a failed coup. He was accused of sending “subliminal messages” the night before the coup attempt and having links to the now-outlawed Gülen movement, which Ankara blames for the failed coup. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018 without the possibility of parole for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”. Later, the Court of Cassation overturned his convictions in July 2019. Altan was re-tried and found guilty on a different charge of “aiding and abetting a terrorist organization” and sentenced to ten years and six months in prison. He appealed the verdict and was originally released pending appeal on November 4, 2019, only to be re-arrested in a week after a court revoked his release for fear of flight risk. In the meantime, Altan’s application to the Constitutional Court also did not yield any remedy to the situation. On May 3, 2019, the Constitutional Court found there were no rights violation in relation to Altan’s detention and dismissed the case.

IPI had jointly intervened and submitted a third party intervention to Altan’s case before the ECtHR with ARTICLE 19, the Association of European Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, the European Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, the International Federation of Journalists, the International Senior Lawyers Project, PEN International and Reporters Without Borders.