Crisis Diplomacy The Long Road to Freedom for German Journalist Yücel
Journalist Deniz Yücel was held without charges in a Turkish prison for 367 days. This is the inside story of how he survived his time in jail, tested the patience of German negotiators and ultimately forced President Erdogan to bend.
Georg Birgelen is quite familiar with the world of diplomacy. For the last two-and-a-half years, he has headed up the German Consulate in Istanbul and prior to that, he was deputy chief of mission at the German Embassy in Moscow. He also played an instrumental role in looking after the imprisoned German journalist Deniz Yücel, who was just released after spending a year in prison in Turkey without charges. In January 2017, prior to Yücel's arrest, Birgelen, 62, brought food to the Die Welt correspondent during the several weeks he spent hiding from the Turkish police in the summer residence of the German ambassador in Istanbul. Later, Birgelen regularly visited Yücel in the high-security prison Silivri, where he was being held.
Last Thursday, after 366 days behind bars, everything was finally prepared for Yücel's release. After months of negotiations, an effort at mediation by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and two secret meetings between German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish government had finally indicated that Deniz Yücel would be released.
But the German consul general suspected that the most difficult test still lay ahead of him: It was his job to convince Yücel to agree to the demands set forth by Ankara. The journalist had repeatedly said from prison that he refused to be instrumentalized in secret deals. He wanted a fair trial and, once he was cleared, to continue working as a journalist in Turkey.
Birgelen knew Yücel as a fighter, as a man who adheres to his principles even under difficult circumstances, but also as someone who could be incredibly stubborn. The consul general was nervous as he headed to the penitentiary. He considered it quite possible that Yücel would block the deal for his own release at the last moment.
Yücel had said: "Once I get out of here, I'm not going to allow anyone to tell me the steps I have to take." And early in his discussion with Birgelen, the Die Welt correspondent remained unmovable. He told the diplomat that he wanted to remain in Turkey for a couple of weeks - or a few days, at a minimum - after his release.
Yücel and Birgelen spoke for quite some time and the diplomat was able to dispel Yücel's concerns that his release was linked to some sort of secret deal between Berlin and Ankara. Ultimately, the Turkish government had presented only a single demand to the German foreign minister: Once he was let out of prison, Deniz Yücel must leave the country immediately.
Convincing Yücel to accept the condition took time, but he ultimately agreed to depart Turkey at once. And with that, there was nothing more standing in the way of his release. The suspension of his imprisonment was a mere formality and was to be announced the next morning.
In the end, Yücel spent 367 days in jail, innocent and uncharged. It was a difficult year for the journalist, but also for his family and friends, for his colleagues and for the politicians and government officials who were involved in his case.
Yücel was the most prominent German prisoner in Turkey, which made his case the most complicated one as well. From the perspective of the Foreign Ministry, the flood of stories about him was both a blessing and a curse: It prevented Yücel from being forgotten, but it also transformed the effort to secure his release into a constant high-wire act.
The Turkish-German journalist became a symbol of the profound impasse in the relationship between Berlin and Ankara, even if the difficulties began long before his arrest and are by no means solved now that he has been released. The case highlights the chasm that has opened up between Germany and Turkey: on the one hand a regime that ruthlessly persecutes the opposition and doesn't shy away from taking foreign media representatives hostage; and on the other a journalist who bows to nothing and nobody in the pursuit of his work. Yücel ignored the threats of the Turkish regime, brushed off warnings from the German government and disregarded the concerns of his own editor-in-chief.
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In the past several months, DER SPIEGEL journalists have conducted several confidential interviews with those focused on Yücel's case and the effort to gain his freedom. They spoke to Foreign Minister Gabriel, with Yücel's lawyers and with his colleagues and friends. Much of the information gathered can only be printed now that Yücel has been released. They were not, however, able to talk with Yücel himself: He is currently on a delayed honeymoon with his wife - who he married while in prison - at an unknown location.
Ultimately, only the Turkish president can say what finally led to the journalist's release. But as is always true of such cases, there were likely several factors that influenced the final decision: economic pressure, the German charm offensive and, not to be forgotten, the stubbornness of Deniz Yücel himself. But the impression remains that his release was just as arbitrary as his arrest had been one year ago.
February 2016: Deniz Yücel Provokes the Turkish Government
In more than a decade as German chancellor, Angela Merkel had only visited Turkey a handful of times. But in 2016, with the refugee crisis in full swing and Berlin dependent on Ankara's support to stop it, Merkel headed to the country on about a monthly basis. One of those visits came on Feb. 8 of that year.
During the press conference at the offices of then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Deniz Yücel took the floor as the cameras rolled. Speaking in German, he accused Merkel of ignoring human rights violations in Turkey so as not to endanger the refugee deal. Turkey, he said, had fallen to 159th place in international press freedom rankings and state security personnel were going after civilians in the country's southeast. "We haven't heard anything from you about all that," he said.
The expression on Davutoglu's face made it clear that he hadn't been expecting such an onslaught and he struggled to compose himself. "You didn't ask a question, you held a political speech," he said to Yücel.
Overnight, the Die Welt journalist became an enemy of the state in Turkey. Government-controlled media launched a campaign against him, vilifying him as "an enemy of religion" and accusing him of being sympathetic to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey. Not long later, the editor-in-chief of Die Welt decided to withdraw Yücel from Turkey on the advice of the German Foreign Ministry. SPIEGEL ONLINE likewise withdrew its correspondent after his press credentials, and thus his residency permit, were not renewed.
But Yücel returned to Turkey, with articles under his byline once again appearing in Die Welt starting in early April. Because he possesses Turkish citizenship in addition to German, he doesn't need a visa to work there, in contrast to journalists from other publications. Martin Schäfer, who was spokesman for the Foreign Ministry at the time, spoke at length with Ulf Poschardt, at the time the deputy editor in chief of Die Welt, advising him against sending Yücel back to Istanbul. He warned Poschardt that the risk of Yücel being arrested was greater than ever, and because he was a citizen of both countries, Yücel wouldn't have a legal right to consular assistance from the German Embassy. Turkey, he said, sees Yücel first and foremost as a Turkish citizen.
September 2016: Erdogan's Son-in-Law Attacks Journalists
The hackers belonging to the radical left-wing group RedHack have repeatedly attracted attention with their spectacular operations. They have forced their way into the computer systems of the Turkish police force, the secret service and the country's Council of Higher Education. But in September 2016, they landed their largest coup to date: They hacked an email account belonging to Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak.
Albayrak isn't just any cabinet member. As Erdogan's son-in-law, he is widely seen as the president's crown prince and most important confidant. His brother Serhat controls the media group Turkuvaz, which owns both the daily newspaper Sabah and the broadcaster A Haber.
RedHack made the Albayrak emails available to journalists, which led to initial articles appearing in a few Turkish media outlets. The revelations were embarrassing for the minister, documenting how he pressured the media and engaged in secret oil deals with the Kurds in northern Iraq.
Albayrak did much to prevent additional articles from being published and suspected RedHack members were arrested. Whenever an article based on the emails appeared, the internet page where it was published would be blocked. But the government was unable to completely plug the leak. And finally, in early December, the entire trove of emails ended up on the platform WikiLeaks - at which point Deniz Yücel began examining the data. With the help of the emails, he published an article in Die Welt on Dec. 13, 2016, about how the government had built up a secret army of trolls on the internet.
Despite his proximity to the president, Albayrak was not an uncontroversial figure in the Turkish government at the time. His cocky behavior had ruffled the feathers of many of his cabinet colleagues and his opponents would have been more than happy to see him fall over the RedHack affair. Albayrak was clearly aware that he couldn't show any weakness and he upped the pressure. In his brother's newspaper Sabah, an item appeared on Dec. 25 that warrants had been issued for the arrest of nine journalists who had reported on the Albayrak emails. One of them was Deniz Yücel.
Christmas 2016: The German Government Aids an Escape
The Turkish police did not begin actively searching for the Die Welt journalist. They neither launched a manhunt, nor did they come to his home. At this point, he apparently wasn't high on the Turkish government's priority list.
But Yücel decided to go into hiding nonetheless. He called the German Embassy in Ankara where, on the first day of the Christmas holidays, only a few were on duty. An embassy employee put him in touch with the consulate in Istanbul.
Consul General Georg Birgelen was on the treadmill in his fitness studio when Yücel's call for help reached him. He immediately consulted with the embassy in Ankara and the Foreign Ministry in Berlin - and the German diplomats quickly decided to put Yücel up in the ambassador's summer residence in Tarabya, an Istanbul suburb located on the shores of the Bosporus. The approximately 18-hectare (44.5 acre) property was given to the German Reich in 1880 by the Ottoman sultan. The lot next door belongs to President Erdogan.
The course of action taken by the Foreign Ministry is not uncontroversial. The practice of "embassy asylum," as practiced by other countries, is not something Germany supports.
That same day, Yücel wrote a note to his closest friends telling them he would be away for a time and not to worry. Yücel hid for almost two months in the wooden buildings on the Tarabya property. Police patrolled in front of the estate and Birgelen brought Yücel food and cigarettes. Aside from the consul general, only a few Foreign Ministry officials and members of the German government were aware of the situation.
It still isn't clear if the Turkish government had planned to go after Yücel even before the RedHack affair. But a high-ranking official with insight into the negotiations says that Yücel more or less accidentally fell into the circle of the accused as a result of the RedHack investigation. "Berat Albayrak arbitrarily targeted everyone who had reported on RedHack," the official says.
Initially, Erdogan didn't even know who Yücel was and apparently only learned of the case from a call from the German government. After the call, the president began asking close advisers about the Turkish-German journalist to learn more about him. The president's team quickly realized that the Yücel case was a special one: He wasn't just some Turkish journalist that could be locked away without anybody being any the wiser. He had a German passport and wrote for a German newspaper. What to do?
- Part 1: The Long Road to Freedom for German Journalist Yücel
- Part 2: Sensitive Diplomacy with an Autocrat