13th August 2013 – Ahmet Altan is an acclaimed Turkish novelist, essayist and journalist. He has written nine novels in a career spanning 30 years, and from November 2007 until December 2012 he was editor-in-chief of liberal Turkish daily newspaper Taraf.
In February 2012, Altan was charged with defamation under Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code for a 19 January 2012 editorial piece printed in Taraf entitled ‘Morality and Enabling the State’**. In the piece, Altan confronted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about his defence of and refusal to apologise for the Uludere Massacre, during which 34 Kurds crossing the border from Iraq to Turkey lost their lives as a result of an airstrike by Turkish warplanes.
The case was brought against Altan by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s lawyers on the grounds that he had ‘attacked [Erdoğan’s] honour, reputation and respectability’, with a heavier sentence sought because Altan had allegedly committed the offence ‘against a public official for carrying out his duty’. On 18 July 2013, Altan was found guilty of defamation by the Istanbul 10th Court of First Instance, and was ordered to pay a €2800 punitive fine, commuted from an 11-month prison sentence. Altan’s lawyer, Veysel Ok, condemned the verdict for infringing on his client’s right to freedom of expression, pointing to the landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling in Tuşalp v Turkey (a defamation case concluded in February 2012, involving Turkish journalist Erbil Tuşalp and Prime Minister Erdoğan), which emphasised the importance of allowing heavy criticism of high-ranking public officials as a necessary element of democratic society.
Turkish defamation cases invoke both criminal and civil law, resulting in one trial for compensatory damages and another trial for punitive fines/imprisonment. The ruling in the criminal case against Altan came eight months after he lost the civil suit, and was ordered to pay around €6000 in compensation to Erdoğan.