Deniz Yücel, a 44-year-old German-Turkish journalist, was released from prison in Istanbul on Friday, February 16th, 2018. Yücel, a correspondent for the German daily Die Welt, had spent 367 days in pre-trial detention without indictment.
On the day of his release, he was indicted on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda and inciting hatred. The Istanbul state prosecutor called for Yücel to be jailed for up to 18 years. At the same time, no ban on leaving the country was imposed, and Yücel arrived back in Germany on Friday.
Yücel was first taken into custody on February 14, 2017, upon accusations of being a member of a terrorist organisation, spreading propaganda, and misusing information. As reasons for imprisonment, the judge cited texts he had written about both the Kurdish-Turkish conflict and the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
The conditions of his detention deteriorated in March 2017, when he was jailed and put in solitary confinement for the next nine months. Merely one-hour weekly visits by his closest relatives were allowed. In December 2017, he was transferred to a cell with another journalist and given access to the prison yard. The case had led to increased tensions between Ankara and Berlin.
At the beginning of February 2018, the German government submitted Yücel’s case to the European Court of Human Rights, stating that he was arrested based only on his news coverage, and that his imprisonment infringed on his fundamental rights and freedoms as established in the European Convention on Human Rights. “Any form of suppression against critical reporting is incompatible with our understanding of press freedom,” stated Germany’s minister of justice, Heiko Maas. At talks with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Thursday, February 15, German chancellor Angela Merkel pressed for his release.
Die Welt published a video message by Yücel on the day of his release, in which he thanked his numerous supporters. Although he still did not know the reasons for his arrest and release, he clarified that neither had anything to do with the state of law. “Of course, I am pleased but something bitter remains,” he concluded. He left behind his prison cell inmate, a Turkish journalist, and “many other journalists who have done nothing but carried out their profession.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “pleased” about Yücel’s release but joined Sigmar Gabriel, Minister for Foreign Affairs, in his statement that the German government would not forget the “five other Germans who are still in jail. We want to use this momentum to accelerate their path to freedom as well.” Frank Werneke, deputy chairman of the German Journalist Union (dju) considered Yücel’s indictment of 18 years as evidence of the deteriorating democratic fundamental rights in Turkey.
Some observers of Turkey have called Yücel’s release a new dimension in a worrisome “hostage diplomacy.” It coincided with a Turkish court sentencing six journalists and other media professionals to life in prison: Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Nazli Ilicak, Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül were all sentenced for being associated with the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey holds responsible for the failed coup attempt of 2016.
Europe director of Amnesty International, Gauri van Gulik, said: “This is a dark day for press freedom and for justice in Turkey and sets a chilling precedent for scores of other journalists facing trials on similar trumped-up terrorism charges.” According to Reporters Without Borders, dozens of journalists have been detained without trial as a result of the failed coup. Turkey is ranked 155 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Currently, 159 Turkish journalists remain imprisoned.
Jennifer Oroilidis (Brussels, Belgium)