Editors’ note: On Feb. 16, a Turkish court sentenced Ahmet Altan, a novelist and former newspaper editor; his brother, Mehmet Altan, an economics professor and political commentator; Nazli Ilicak, a prominent journalist; and three media employees to life imprisonment without parole for involvement in the July 15, 2016, coup attempt in Turkey.
The Altan brothers had appeared on a television program hosted by Ms. Ilicak a day before the coup attempt. Turkish prosecutors claimed that they gave “subliminal messages” announcing the coup on the program.
Turkey says that a network led by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist cleric based in the United States, orchestrated the coup, which included an attempt on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s life, the bombing of the Parliament and the deaths of more than 270 people. In the purge by the Turkish government that followed, more than 150,000 people have been fired from their jobs, detained or arrested.
Mr. Altan wrote this essay about his imprisonment and sentencing, and about fiction and reality, in his prison cell in the city of Silivri, on the outskirts of Istanbul.
SILIVRI, Turkey — They sit on a bench that is two meters high. They wear black robes with red collars. In a few hours they will decide my destiny. I look at them. They have loosened their ties out of boredom.
The chief judge, sitting in the middle, splays his right arm across the bench like a piece of wet laundry and fiddles with his fingers. He has a long, narrow face. His eyes are hidden under swollen half-closed eyelids. Every now and then he looks at his cellphone to read his messages.
When one of my co-defendants says he is about to undergo heart bypass surgery, the chief judge pulls the microphone toward him and speaks in a mechanical voice. “The hospital told us there were no circumstances preventing your stay in prison,” he says.
As defense lawyers talk about the most crucial matters, his mechanical voice orders: “You have two minutes. Wrap it up.” I remember what Elias Canetti said about such people: “Being safe, at peace and in splendor, and then to hear a person’s pleas while determined to turn a deaf ear … could anything be more vile than that?”
While the defendants and their lawyers speak, the chubby, skew-eyed judge to the chief’s right leans back in his chair and looks up at the ceiling. The lines of pleasure moving across his face suggest he is daydreaming. When he doesn’t seem to be daydreaming he leans his head on his hand and sleeps. The judge on the left busies himself with the computer in front of him, continuously reading something.
Around noon they tell us they will withdraw for deliberations. We are surrounded by gendarmes. They are wearing RoboCop gear with black plastrons and kneepads. A gendarme takes each of us by the arm and walks us between two rows of guards and down narrow stairs.