Open letter from 51 Nobel Prize winners demands release of imprisoned Turkish journalists

Ishiguro, Stiglitz, Alexievich among Nobel laureates urging Turkish president to restore rule of law and “reclaim membership of free world”

English, February 28 20:38
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The cream of scholars, scientists and literary figures from around the world called upon Turkey to respect freedom of speech, end the state of emergency and set free writers and journalists wrongfully imprisoned.

An open letter published in the Guardian newspaper, signed by an initial 38 Nobel prize winners, drew particular attention to the recent sentencing by an İstanbul court of journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak, to aggravated life imprisonment.

That conviction, on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through use of force and violence” has sparked high level protest given that Turkey’s own constitutional court had ruled only weeks before ruled as a “pilot judgement” that defendant, Mehmet Altan should be freed from pre-trial detention for lack of evidence.

The laureates reminded the Turkish president of his once strong commitment to free expression, quoting remarks at a 2009 ceremony in honor of journalist Çetin Altan that the days when Turkey sentenced its great writers to prison was gone for ever. “Among the audience were Çetin Altan’s two sons: Ahmet and Mehmet. Nine years later, they are sentenced to life,” the letter said.

A speedy return to the rule of law would not just free writers in prison but “make Turkey again a proud member of the free world,” the letter said.

Since its initial publication an additional three Nobel winners have added their names, including the 93 year-old neurophysiologist, Torsten Nils Wiesel (1981 Nobel Prize for Medicine).

The list is expected to rise further.  

They will be joining literary giants Romania-born German writer Herta Müller known for her novels Traveling on One Leg and The Appointment, Elfriede Jelinek, author of The Piano Teacher which was adapted to cinema by Michael Haneke and awarded the Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, Belarussian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich author of Secondhand Time and The Unwomenly Face of War, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa who is widely considered as one of the greatest writers and essayist of South America and South African born author J.M. Coetzee, twice winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Other signatories include respected American economist Joseph Stiglitz, Elias Corey, considered as one of the greatest living chemists, his colleagues Robert Huber and Harmurt Michel who made important discoveries on photosynthesis, American geneticist Andrew Fire who carried out groundbreaking researches on RNA and physicist Andre Geim often described as the “inventor” of the graphene, one of the lightest and strongest materials known.

The letter reminded the Turkish president of a similar protest against his own “unjust, unlawful, and cruel” conviction for reciting a poem in 1997 “Many human rights organizations which defended you then are appalled at the violations now occurring in your country,” the laureates wrote.

Here is the full open letter:


Dear President Erdoğan,

We wish to draw your attention to the damage being done to the Republic of Turkey, to its reputation and the dignity and wellbeing of its citizens, through what leading authorities on freedom of expression deem to be the unlawful detention and wrongful conviction of writers and thinkers.

In a Memorandum on the Freedom of Expression in Turkey (2017), Nils Muižnieks, then Council of Europe commissioner for Human Rights, warned:

“The space for democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly following increased judicial harassment of large strata of society, including journalists, members of parliament, academics and ordinary citizens, and government action which has reduced pluralism and led to self-censorship. This deterioration came about in a very difficult context, but neither the attempted coup, nor other terrorist threats faced by Turkey, can justify measures that infringe media freedom and disavow the rule of law to such an extent.

“The authorities should urgently change course by overhauling criminal legislation and practice, redevelop judicial independence and reaffirm their commitment to protect free speech.”

There is no clearer example of the commissioner’s concern that the detention in September 2016 of Ahmet Altan, a bestselling novelist and columnist; Mehmet Altan, his brother, professor of economics and essayist; and Nazlı Ilıcak, a prominent journalist – all as part of a wave of arrests following the failed July 2016 coup. These writers were charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through violence or force. The prosecutors originally wanted to charge them with giving “subliminal messages” to coup supporters while appearing on a television panel show. The ensuing tide of public ridicule made them change that accusation to using rhetoric “evocative of a coup”. Indeed, Turkey’s official Anatolia News Agency called the case “The Coup Evocation Trial”.

As noted in the commissioner’s report, the evidence considered by the judge in Ahmet Altan’s case was limited to a story dating from 2010 in Taraf newspaper (of which Ahmet Altan had been the editor-in-chief until 2012), three of his op-ed columns and a TV appearance. The evidence against the other defendants was equally insubstantial. All these writers had spent their careers opposing coups and militarism of any sort, and yet were charged with aiding an armed terrorist organisation and staging a coup.

The commissioner saw the detention and prosecution of Altan brothers as part of a broader pattern of repression in Turkey against those expressing dissent or criticism of the authorities. He considered such detentions and prosecutions to have violated human rights and undermined the rule of law. David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, concurred and dubbed the legal proceedings a “show trial”.

Turkey’s own constitutional court concurred with this criticism. On 11 January this year, it ruled that Mehmet Altan and fellow journalist Şahin Alpay’s rights were being violated by pre-trial detention, and that they should be released. Yet the first-degree courts refused to implement the higher constitutional court’s decision, thus placing the judicial system in criminal violation of the constitution. Mr President, you must surely be concerned that the lower criminal court’s defiance and this non-legal decision was backed by the spokesperson of your government.

On 16 February 2018, the Altan brothers and Ilıcak were sentenced to aggravated life sentences, precluding them from any prospect of a future amnesty.

President Erdoğan, we the undersigned share the following opinion of David Kaye: “The court decision condemning journalists to aggravated life in prison for their work, without presenting substantial proof of their involvement in the coup attempt or ensuring a fair trial, critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey”.

In April 1998, you yourself were stripped of your position as mayor of Istanbul, banned from political office, and sentenced to prison for 10 months, for reciting a poem during a public speech in December 1997 through the same article 312 of the penal code. This was unjust, unlawful and cruel. Many human rights organisations – which defended you then – are appalled at the violations now occurring in your country. Amnesty International, PEN International, Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19, and Reporters Without Borders are among those who oppose the recent court decision.

During a ceremony in honor of Çetin Altan, on 2 February 2009, you declared publicly that “Turkey is no longer the same old Turkey who used to sentence its great writers to prison – this era is gone for ever.” Among the audience were Çetin Altan’s two sons: Ahmet and Mehmet. Nine years later, they are sentenced to life; isn’t that a fundamental contradiction?

Under these circumstances, we voice the concern of many inside Turkey itself, of its allies and of the multilateral organizations of which it is a member. We call for the abrogation of the state of emergency, a quick return to the rule of law and for full freedom of speech and expression. Such a move would result in the speedy acquittal on appeal of Ms Ilıcak and the Altan brothers, and the immediate release of others wrongfully detained. Better still, it would make Turkey again a proud member of the free world.

Signatories of the letter

Svetlana Alexievich (2015 Nobel Prize in Literature)

Philip W. Anderson (1977 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Martin Chalfie (2008  Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Aaron Ciechanover (2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

J.M. Coetzee (2003 Nobel Prize in Literature)

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (1997 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Elias J. Corey (1990 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Peter Diamond (2010 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel)

Gerhard Ertl (2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Albert Fert (2007 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Edmond H. Fischer (1992 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Andrew Z. Fire (2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Andre Geim (2010 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Sheldon Glashow (1979 Nobel Prize in Physics)

David Gross (2004 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Serge Haroche (2012 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Oliver Hart (2016 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel)

Leland H. Hartwell (2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Richard Henderson (2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Dudley Herschbach (1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Avram Hershko (2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Roald Hoffmann (1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Robert Huber (1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Tim Hunt (2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Kazuo Ishiguro (2017 Nobel Prize in Literature)

Elfriede Jelinek (2004 Nobel Prize in Literature)

Leon Lederman (1988 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Anthony James Leggett (2003 Nobel Prize in Physics)

Daniel Kahneman (2002 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel)
Eric Kandel (2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Eric S. Maskin (2007 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel)

Craig Mello (2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Hartmut Michel (1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Herta Müller (2009 Nobel Prize in Literature)

V.S. Naipaul (2001 Nobel Prize in Literature)

William D. Phillips (1997 Nobel Prize in Physics)

John C. Polanyi (1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Richard J. Roberts (1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Jean-Pierre Sauvage (2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Randy W. Schekman (2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Wole Soyinka (1986 Nobel Prize in Literature)

Thomas A. Steitz (2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Joseph Stiglitz (2001 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel)

Thomas C. Südhof (2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Jack W. Szostak (2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Mario Vargas Llosa (2010 Nobel Prize in Literature)

J. Robin Warren (2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Arieh Warshel (2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Eric F. Wieschaus (1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Torsten Wiesel (1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

David Wineland (2012 Nobel Prize in Physics)