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The sultan's political hostage

Neil King
March 10, 2017

Turkey's detention of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel has led to a deterioration of already badly frayed German-Turkish relations. DW spoke to his best friend, Doris Akrap, who has been campaigning for his release.

Deniz Yücel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Schindler

DW: How is Deniz coping in prison?

Doris Akrap: He's okay mentally, but he is still in isolation. He has just seen his lawyer twice and his sister who came here this week. You can imagine to be really alone, without any contact with the outside world, this is hard. And as far as we know they keep him okay, but they keep him completely alone. The meals he gets are just put through a small window in the door, so the door is closed all the time.

Doris, you've been friends for over 30 years. Can you describe his personality? What kind of guy is Deniz?

He's a funny guy. He has a lot of humor. He was always a guy who did everything with a lot of passion. We went to school together, so I've known him for a really long time. We were always very close, so we said 'Okay let's go to Berlin' together - actually, we were a couple at that time. We wanted to study and become journalists.

And he's also very passionate the way he works as a journalist.

Honking for press freedom in Turkey

How did you react when you heard the announcement that Deniz would be transferred to a high-security prison?

It was completely horrible. Some of the people around me were screaming; some were staring in shock. We all didn't believe they were really doing it, because everyone knew this will cause a big scandal between the Turkish and the German government.

I never had this experience in my life. I never knew somebody who was standing in front of a judge being proclaimed a terrorist, or charged with propagating terrorism, which is absurd as you can imagine if you read his texts.

After some seconds we all went back to functioning. We had to call the family, we had to call our colleagues, we had to inform the world about what is happening here. This is kind of helping me, and I think all the others too, to inform everybody what a big mess is going on in Turkey - not just to Deniz. This is an unusual case because he's the only one who has double citizenship there and was working as a journalist, but there are dozens, hundreds of journalists facing the same situation as he does.

You were in Turkey for 10 days, you're back in Germany now. What are your prevailing feelings right now? How angry are you about how your friend is being treated?

I'm very angry. I saw Deniz for three or four minutes the moment before he went into the office of the prosecutor. This was very important to see him alive, to see him in very good condition. To be back here, it's hard, because it's kind of depressing to be far away and even in Turkey or in Istanbul you don't see any signs of "Free Deniz" in the public, because political protest is forbidden.

Deutschland Solidaritätsaktion für in Türkei inhaftierten Journalisten
Many people took part in car convoys to show solidarity with YücelImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold

Here in Berlin everywhere I go I see some of these posters "Free Deniz" - I talk to the people who are very heartfelt and feeling solidarity with him. 

Are you able to exchange letters with Deniz or can you contact him at all?

Not at all, no. He's in so-called Block Nine, this is the hardest block of Silivri prison. Nobody can go inside - just the lawyers [once] a week for one hour. The direct family, first grade, which means the sister and the parents who live in Germany actually, they can go once a week for one hour. And members of the Turkish parliament can go there and visit him. There were already two I think who visited him. That's it. He can't get letters, he can't get books, he can't get messages, nothing. They can't get anything inside the prison.

Turkey currently has more jailed journalists than any other country in the world. It's basically a big open-air prison in many respects - academics and intellectuals locked up.

Yes. I can tell you a joke, because the Istanbul people, they have a great sense of humor and there's a funny joke that if you want to see the elite of Istanbul, the intellectuals, the artists, the lawyers, the politicians and the journalists, then you better go to Silivri, this prison 80 kilometers outside the city center. The center is no longer the heart of Istanbul. They say the heart of Istanbul has been moved to Silivri.

Doris, the timing of all this, it can't really be a coincidence. Turkey's got a key referendum coming up in April that could see Erdogan grab even more power and Turkish government ministers are campaigning across Europe for the support of ethnic Turks who are entitled to vote in the referendum. Given that some German towns have canceled pro-referendum campaign rallies by some Turkish ministers, do you think Erdogan might exploit the case of Deniz to draw concessions from Berlin ahead of the referendum?

Definitely, I think he already did. He made a statement last Friday that Deniz is a German spy, a German agent. I mean, come on! He is accused of being a member of PKK, of making propaganda for Gülen who are enemies. And now he's accused of being a German spy - I can't do anything but laugh about it, because this is laughable.

Türkei Präsident Erdogan Rede in Istanbul
A key referendum in April will show how much support Erdogan still has in TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/Ap Photo/Y. Bulbul

And sure, [Erdogan] is gambling, and he's gambling for his referendum I guess. If this was all planned? I don't think so, but maybe - I also think that he and his ministers are now coming to Germany immediately after imprisoning Deniz, because they know the Germans will have a hard time with that. And so he can say "Look, this is not a democracy, this is fascism" - which is absurd.

He even played the Nazi card, didn't he?

He played the Nazi card, sure. They are playing every card. They are showing Merkel as Goebbels planning the war, it's very crazy. But actually, I don't know if the people in Turkey really believe that. Surely the normal people who still have a brain and are thinking for themselves they don't believe anything of that, but I don't know about the rest.

Doris Akrap
Akrap went to Turkey to campaign for her best friend's releaseImage: D. Akrap

Doris, if Deniz is a kind of political hostage, then politics is most likely the only thing that can secure his release. If we follow this logic, what does Erdogan want and how should Berlin respond?

Actually I don't know what he wants, I really don't know. Obviously he just wants to be - now I'm being a little bit polemic, he wants to be aultan. He wants to have all the power, he wants to decide everything. What he wants from Germany I don't know. Maybe, this is just another speculation, I'm not at all an expert on Turkey, but maybe he sees that support for him in the Turkish society is not as big as it was. And there are people in Turkey who are saying that if he sees the referendum is voted no, he will just cancel the referendum. 

I'd like to end on a hopeful note: Deniz, as you said, is your best friend and you've known him for over 30 years. How would you like to spend the first day when you meet him again in freedom?

My plan was when I arrived in Istanbul that when he's free we'll make a big corso [convoy of cars] - not a protest corso, but a love corso that he's free. He would laugh about that very much.

Doris Akrap has known Deniz Yücel for over 30 years. Doris, who's German-Croatian and a journalist for German newspaper taz, is campaigning for her friend's release and was able to meet him briefly at a recent court hearing in Istanbul.

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