An open letter to ECtHR President Robert Spano

Journalist and academic Mehmet Altan has penned an open letter to European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) President Robert Spano, who is scheduled to give a lecture at the Justice Academy in Ankara tomorrow. "I taught at Istanbul University for 30 continuous years. I was detained in 2016 on charges of violating three articles of the constitution. Despite the rulings by the Constitutional Court and the ECtHR, I have still not been able to go back to my university — the one you will be receiving your honorary doctorate from," Altan wrote.

Mehmet Altan

Dear President,

There are more than 60,000 individual applications to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) from Turkey. Turkey is in second place after Russia when it comes to applications about rights violations. 

As you are aware, I am one of the citizens of the Republic of Turkey whose constitutional rights have been disregarded. I say that you are aware of the situation because my application file was evaluated by the section of the high court you were presiding over at that time. 

The Second Section of the ECtHR, over which you presided, set a precedent within universal law when it ruled on March 20, 2018 that my right to personal liberty and security, as well as my freedom of expression, were violated. Turkey was convicted. 

I thank you and the court over which you now preside for this judgment. The law has prevailed. 

Dear President,

Your judgment on my file also has an important feature in terms of the ECtHR’s history: the Turkish judge on the case, Ergin Ergül, was the only dissenting judge. As the head of the court, you wrote a dissenting opinion against his dissenting opinion. As far as I know, this was a first in the history of the ECtHR, and the other judges followed your lead. 

It was announced that you would pay a visit to Turkey on September 3, 2020 on the invitation of Turkey’s Ministry of Justice. 

However, it was jarring to find out that you would be receiving an honorary doctorate from Istanbul University. I must remind and inform you about the situation regarding the justice system and the state of legal training and education in Turkey. 

I wonder whether you know that the judge, Ergin Ergül, is a graduate of Istanbul University’s Faculty of Law, which will be awarding you with an honorary doctorate. Ergül is the judge against whose decision you were obliged to write a dissenting opinion in the name of universal law.

The same Istanbul University also presented, once upon a time, an honorary law PhD title to the retired General Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup d’état in Turkey. Your office must have known about this fact and informed you accordingly.

Dear President,

I taught and lectured at Istanbul University, the institution you will receive an honorary law degree from, for 30 continuous years. I was a professor at the same institution for 27 years. 

I was detained in 2016 on charges of violating three articles of the constitution. On October 29, 2016, one month into my imprisonment, while I was in my jail cell, I heard on TV that I had been expelled from my university through a statutory decree (KHK). The people who expelled me, together with several other academics, are the same people who will present you with an honorary law degree. 

Even though Turkey’s Constitutional Court decided that my constitutional rights had been violated on three separate occasions and ruled in favor of my release, I was not released. Moreover, immediately after this, I was sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment.  

Even after the judgment by the ECtHR, of which you are now the president and which stated that my rights have been violated, the Istanbul 2nd Criminal Court still upheld my conviction. My point is that such judicial scandals occur in Turkey and are still ongoing. 

Finally, even though it took quite a while, on November 4, 2019, I was acquitted. My acquittal became final after the 16th Criminal Department of the High Court of Appeals ruled in favor of my acquittal.

However, the Istanbul University from which you will be receiving your honorary degree is the defendant in an on-going case challenging my expulsion from the institution. The Ankara 21st Administrative Court is still waiting to take up this case.

Despite the court’s final order of acquittal, despite the rulings by the Constitutional Court and the ECtHR, I have still not been able to go back to my university — the one you will be receiving your honorary doctorate from.

Your honorary university is the institution that is on the defense side in court cases opened by academics, like myself, who have been removed from their positions through statutory decrees, through the power of the law.

These cases are ongoing and it is highly probable that they will appear before you in the ECtHR, the European high court over which you preside. By that time, you will have become the judge who has already accepted an honorary degree from Istanbul University.  

I don’t know how proud it will make you feel to be an honorary member of a university that has expelled hundreds of academics with unjust reasons and forced them into unemployment and poverty. 

Under normal circumstances, your visit to Turkey would be a pleasure. Unfortunately, that is not the case now. 

Dear President,

The ECtHR guarantees the protection of the freedoms and rights documented in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

We want to believe that, under your presidency, the ECtHR will secure the rights of everyone under its jurisdiction as a kind of umbrella of law.

However, it is difficult to say that our faith in the ECtHR has always been unwavering.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 70-year-old Ahmet Altan has been behind bars at Silivri Prison for four years. His novels have been printed in 23 countries. Your court decided to give Ahmet Altan’s “priority treatment.”

Unfortunately, we have still been waiting for this priority treatment for four years despite the fact that the European high court has a full understanding of the details of the case.

We, of course, are also aware of the efforts of certain people to prevent the review of the Ahmet Altan case. If the case is taken up one day, then those same powers will want to make sure that no decision finding a violation of rights is reached. This is not the medium, actually, to discuss this, and it is not in my nature to discuss this major victimization that has been experienced on that level.

Of course, you are free to make your own choices in this matter, and it is clear that each of your choices will have various future consequences and implications.

I would like to welcome you to Turkey in advance, the country you will be visiting as the president of an international high court that was established by the European Convention on Human Rights and to which victims suffering under the law have pinned the highest of hopes.

Yours sincerely,