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Deniz Yücel: PEN Germany's new president

Stefan Dege
October 28, 2021

The German journalist who was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey for a year has been elected at the head of the association supporting persecuted authors.

Deniz Yücel
Deniz YücelImage: picture-alliance/P. Franck

PEN International (which stands for Poets, Essayists, Novelists) serves as the voice of persecuted writers around the world. The association, which was founded 100 years ago in London, now counts some 150 autonomous PEN Centers worldwide, including PEN Germany, which was created in 1924.

The German PEN Center on Tuesday elected the German-Turkish journalist and author Deniz Yücel as their new president. He replaces Regula Venske.

"I am very much in favor of intellectual, political and cultural confrontations with the enemies of an open society," said Yücel in his speech to the members of the PEN Center at their annual general assembly at St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt.

"I am convinced that we as authors, that we as PEN, as our guiding principle and for the sake of our credibility, must always be in favor of freedom of speech and art," he said, emphasizing that even flawed or questionable art and books need to be protected.

Taking a stand for freedom of speech

Yücel told DW he felt "very honored" to become the new president of the association.

In 2017, the correspondent for the newspaper Die Welt was arrested in Turkey for alleged terrorist propaganda. He was detained and held in custody for a full year and was only released and allowed to leave the country after a political tug-of-war.

A demonstration with a placard that reads FreeDeniz, and red balloons.
A demonstration in February 2018 to free Deniz Yücel, already imprisoned for a year by thenImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

A court in Istanbul has convicted him in absentia of terrorist propaganda. He currently faces another charge of "degrading the Turkish nation" and insulting its president.

His application for the position of PEN president "definitely had something to do with this experience," Yücel told DW, even though he was determined after his release to never see himself reduced "to the role of the person who sat in the caliph's dungeon" — that would correspond, in his view, to another form of imprisonment.

Still, he said, he realized that his situation also entailed a certain responsibility to protect freedom of speech and art. "I have decided to face this responsibility not only as a journalist, but also as president of the German PEN Center," he said.

A strong signal amid diplomatic row with President Erdogan

Yücel's election comes shortly after a diplomatic crisis involving 10 countries — including Germany — and Turkey. Ambassadors from Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the US had issued a joint statement in support of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned in Turkey for the past four years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel the ambassadors from his country.

The embassies have meanwhile backtracked by stating that they would abide by a diplomatic convention not to interfere in a host country's internal affairs. That seemingly settled the issue, although it did not help Osman Kavala's case.

Parallels between Kavala and Yücel

Yücel served time in the same high-security prison as Kavala in 2017. "But only for a year," he said. "Kavala has already been there for four years," and his continued detention despite the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are a scandal, added Yücel.

Osman Kavala: Imprisoned activist, philanthropist

The new PEN president has called for the suspension of Turkey's membership in the Council of Europe, based on its "systematic disregard of the European Court of Human Rights, personally ordered by Erdogan."

"All signatory states to the European Convention on Human Rights have recognized the European Court of Human Rights as the highest authority on human rights issues," said Yücel, who has also appealed to the Strasbourg judges on his own behalf. "It is a violation of current Turkish law and of the current Turkish constitution that judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are not followed in Turkey."

The Berlin-based journalist Yücel has won several awards for his work, including the 2011 Kurt Tucholsky Prize for Literary Journalism for his parodic column "Vuvuzela" about the 2010 World Cup. He received further prizes in 2017, many of which were meant as a show of solidarity for his case, including the Theodor Wolff Prize.

Yücel reported on the period of his imprisonment and the political conditions in Turkey in a book, Agentterrorist (Terrorist Agent), which was published in 2019.

Deniz Yücel joined the German PEN Center in May 2019. Now, as the newly elected German PEN president, the outspoken journalist is joined by Astrid Vehstedt as the new PEN vice president and Writers-in-Exile representative.


This article was translated from German.