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Deniz Yücel's effect on German-Turkish relations

February 14, 2018

There's rarely a discussion about German-Turkish relations in which Deniz Yücel's name does not come up. The imprisoned journalist has been effectively held hostage in Turkey by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a year.

A demonstration against journalists imprisoned in Turkey
Image: picture alliance / rtn - radio tele nord

Deniz Yücel was working as a correspondent in Turkey for the German daily newspaper Die Welt when he was taken into custody by police in Istanbul on February 14, 2017. An arrest warrant was issued a short time later. By March, the 43-year-old, who has German and Turkish passports, was transferred to Istanbul's maximum-security Silivri prison and courts complex. Many press and rights advocates consider him a hostage of Turkey's government.

Timeline: Deniz Yücel has spent a year in Erdogan's prisons

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel again called for Yücel's release saying the journalist's imprisonment "continued to be one of the big hurdles in bilateral relations between Germany and Turkey."

"Just as before we are directing talks towards a fast and just procedure," he added. "In our eyes, the release of Deniz Yücel can be the only goal."

Yücel and collaborators are releasing a new anthology "Wir sind ja nicht zum Spass hier" ("We Are Not Here for Fun") to mark the first anniversary of his detention. In it, he says that his own imprisonment threw a fresh light on the stories he was working on. 

"I had spoken to torture victims in the past, I had even spoken with Holocaust survivors," Yücel writes. "But now I understand how such accounts of state violence take on a wholly new dimension when you are a victim of precisely that state." 

Opinion: Deniz Yücel's year in Turkish prison

The book is accompanied by numerous expressions of solidarity from prominent supporters, including artists, actors and journalists.

In his piece, written from prison, Yücel describes how he met Cengiz, a fighter from the banned Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) who was jailed in 1996. With "eyes that spoke of the unspeakable," Cengiz described in detail how he had been sadistically tortured by a special unit of the Turkish army. Yücel also writes about his argument with Cengiz, who, "in the cold jargon of a party soldier," denied that the PKK had any guilt in the escalation of violence and deaths of civilians.

"Deniz Yücel is someone who never minced his words in his reporting," Kristian Brakel, the head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Istanbul, told DW. "He served it up to both the left and right of the political spectrum — and wrote very sharp analyses." 

Brakel believes that Yücel is being punished for his harsh criticism of Turkey's government. "It is difficult to say whether there was originally an intention to get Germany to hand something over, but there have definitely been attempts to use him for blackmailing purposes." He has been charged with "incitement of the people" and "terrorist propaganda." Eight articles that he wrote for Die Welt were mentioned.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a stance early on. "Journalists must be able to do their job," she said two weeks after his arrest. "That is why we are thinking of Deniz Yücel, who is in pretrial detention in Turkey and whose release we are calling for: because we believe that he has done nothing other than to carry out his independent journalistic work. This must be followed through." Merkel added that "the federal government will do everything in its power to ensure that this happens."

Journalist Deniz Yücel
Known for reporting that pulls no punches, Yücel has many prominent supportersImage: picture-alliance/Eventpress/Stauffenberg

Independent justice?

After July 2016's failed coup attempt in Turkey, the government began to imprison people in large numbers. The roundup included at least 28 German citizens — not counting Yücel. According to Germany's Foreign Ministry, all but six were released, including the human rights activist Peter Steudtner and the journalist and translator Mesale Tolu.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally intervened in Yücel's case. "He is truly a spy and a terrorist," the president said. "There's no way he's a journalist. And, for a whole month, the German Embassy hid him in their summer residence in Istanbul."

Brakel said such statements were based on paranoia nursed by some government officials: "the idea that Europeans and Americans want to destroy Turkey."

Erdogan said he would not permit Yücel to leave for Germany — "never, under no circumstances, as long as I am in office." However, Brakel believes that the president might release Yücel in exchange for the return of Turkish military personnel whom the government accuses of involvement in the coup, but who have been granted asylum in Germany.

Berlin Protest for Deniz Yücel
Various demonstrations to protest Yücel's imprisonment taken place in Berlin Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. McDougall

Warming relations

The governments of Germany and Turkey are demonstratively committed to restoring normalcy to the two countries' relations . Gabriel recently visited his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and later received him at his own home in Goslar, Lower Saxony, attracting media attention by serving Turkish tea. His guest spoke on several occasions of his "friend Sigmar" — an ally whom he hopes will help expand the EU's customs union to include Turkey, as well as provide the country with further assistance in arms and military aid. Gabriel made it clear that further arms supplies depend on solving problems, including the case of Deniz Yücel.

The journalist has expressed concern that the governments could attempt to use him as a bargaining chip. In a written interview Yücel conducted with the German press agency dpa via his lawyers, he mentioned agreements that France's government had made with Turkey and said he did not want his freedom to be "tainted with Rheinmetall's tank deals" or by Germany's extradition of "pro-coup ex-officers." He made it clear that "I'm not available for dirty deals." Gabriel dismissed this, saying there was no dirty deal in the works.

Yücel will not remain silent; he intends to observe, write and continue his work as a journalist, even if he has to do so in prison. While in police custody he wrote next to the pictures in a copy of "The Little Prince," which was then smuggled out. In his new book, he promises that he will carry on, "because we're not here for fun."

That spirit is shared by contributors to the new book. "There is only one reason to lock people like Deniz Yücel away: It is to force them finally to shut up," the German-Croatian journalist Doris Akrap writes in the foreword. "To make it clear that this is not going to happen, this book is coming out."

Andrea Grunau
Andrea Grunau Reporter and author