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.
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 article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 9/2018 (February 24th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
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?
Sensitive Diplomacy with an Autocrat
A group of moderate advisers and cabinet ministers advised Erdogan to solve the problem through quiet talks with Germany. "It was clear that with the arrest of Yücel, we would be hurting ourselves on the long term," said one government politician who didn't want to be quoted by name. Hardliners like Albayrak, on the other hand, wanted to make an example of the Die Welt journalist. Erdogan couldn't make up his mind.
In the German Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, an idea was making the rounds to secretly smuggle Yücel out of the country. But how? On a boat across the Aegean Sea? In a car across the Turkish-Bulgarian border? Or could Yücel be brought to the NATO air base in Konya and flown out with one of the AWACS aircraft? All of the ideas considered, though, were quickly abandoned as being absurd.
On Feb. 2, 2017, Merkel spoke about the Yücel case with Erdogan in Ankara. But the hopes harbored by German diplomats of a political solution were dashed. The Turkish president insisted that Yücel turn himself in to the police.
The Foreign Ministry told Yücel's employer, the publishing house Axel Springer Verlag, that there had been no change to the situation that had initially forced Yücel into hiding. Only Erdogan's public tirades against Germany had become a bit more seldom. But Yücel could no longer stand it. He didn't want to become "a second Julian Assange," he said, referring to the WikiLeaks founder who has been confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012. He decided to turn himself in.
February 2017: The Turkish Government Takes Yücel Hostage
Lawyer Veysel Ok was certain that his client would be set free when he and Yücel appeared at the police headquarters located on Vatan Caddesi in Istanbul on Feb. 14. "Mr. Yücel, Chancellor Merkel has taken an interest in you," the police president said in greeting. "Where have you been?"
"At home," Yücel responded. They drank tea and then Yücel was interrogated. The police officers asked him about the Albayrak emails and about his contacts with RedHack. But the whole thing was a charade: The police president had already received orders from Ankara to take the journalist into custody.
Yücel ended up in a cell in the police-station basement with two or three other prisoners. Neon lights were left on around the clock, it stank of sweat and the toilets were filthy. Pens and paper were forbidden. Yücel used a broken plastic fork as a writing utensil and the red sauce from canned food as ink. Later, he was able to smuggle a pen out of a doctor's office. He wrote a diary of his life in detention, which appeared in Die Welt's Sunday edition under the headline: "We're Not Here for Fun." ("Food: Mornings, spongy bread with cheese/cold cuts. Midday and evenings, canned food. Always looks the same and always tastes miserable.")
The Foreign Embassy in Berlin still hoped to find a compromise with Turkey. In truth, though, Yücel's fate had long since been decided. The hardliners in Ankara surrounding Energy Minister Albayrak had got their way.
After two weeks in the police station basement, Yücel was brought before the custodial judge in the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul on Feb. 27 - and his hearing began with a surprise. Instead of being asked about the Albayrak emails, as he had been back at the police station, the focus was suddenly on a story he had written about the failed putsch attempt on July 15, 2016, on a feature about the Turkish military's war against Kurdish rebels in the southeast and on an interview he had conducted with PKK leader Cemil Bayik.
President Erdogan, a Turkish official would later explain, didn't want his son-in-law's email affair to once again hit the headlines. So the judge locked Yücel away on the pretext of disseminating terrorist propaganda.
Erdogan had also recognized the case's campaign potential. In April 2017, Turkish voters were set to cast their ballots in a constitutional referendum that would hand the president even more power, and anti-European propaganda is quite popular among nationalist voters. In a speech delivered on March 3, Erdogan accused Yücel of being a PKK member and a "German agent" who had been hiding in the German Consulate.
March 2017: Deniz Yücel Ends Up in Solitary Confinement in Silivri
Just a few years ago, the high-security block of Silivri near Istanbul was just a handful of concrete buildings. These days, though, it is one of the largest prison facilities in Europe. The government holds its greatest enemies in Silivri: opposition politicians, journalists and military officers accused of having taken part in the putsch attempt on July 15, 2016.
After a few days, Yücel was also transferred from Istanbul's Metris jail to Silivri. His cell had a toilet, a shower and a tiny courtyard surrounded by high concrete walls. The guards would push his meals through a slot in the door. Yücel spent the first nine months of his imprisonment in solitary confinement. With the exception of his lawyers, his wife and the German consul general, he wasn't allowed to see anyone.
In an interview, he explained how he passed the time in jail. "Reading, writing, cleaning, preparing to talk with lawyers, meeting with lawyers. You don't have as much time in jail as I would have imagined. In the jail shop I can buy pens and paper. I have calluses on my right hand from writing so much."
Imprisonment wasn't just a burden for Yücel, but also for his family and friends - particularly for Dilek Mayatürk, his girlfriend who became his wife. Mayatürk is a poet and has worked as a television producer for the BBC and other broadcasters. Yücel met her while covering the war waged by the Turkish government against Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey. At the time of Yücel's arrest, Mayatürk had just started a new job in Munich. The couple had only been together for six months at that point.
Mayatürk had to make one of the toughest decisions she had ever faced. She had just begun a new life in Munich, but she also knew it would be impossible to provide support to Yücel from the distance. So she quit her job, gave up her apartment and moved back to Istanbul. In April, the two married in jail.
Mayatürk was allowed conjugal visits to Yücel once a week at Silivri. Each time, they got to speak to each other for an hour through a glass panel. Mayatürk didn't say much - she mostly just listened.
Yücel's wife became his most important source of support in prison. She helped to keep him from becoming desperate in the face of the injustices he faced. Mayatürk also tried not to betray any signs of weakness, even though the situation did cause her considerable suffering. She began painting and playing the cello to take her mind off the situation. "No one will ever be able to give back the year that the Turkish government has stolen from us," she says.
In Berlin, journalist Doris Akrap and the author Imran Ayata founded #FreeDeniz, a circle of friends focused on the journalist's liberation. Ayata is a lot like Yücel, with his quick wit and his shoot-from-the-hip style. Most importantly, though, as the CEO of a well-known PR agency, he has important contacts in the cultural sector. Ayata and Akrap started a campaign aimed at securing Yücel's release: They organized motorcade protests, concerts and readings where celebrities, including German rock star and actor Herbert Grönemeyer and actress Hanna Schygulla, read articles penned by Yücel.
The #FreeDeniz movement succeeded in bringing together people from all walks of life, across party boundaries. It brought together journalists from the left and the right and protesters who ranged from left-wing radicals to staunch conservatives, all united by a single issue.
July 2017: Erdogan Seeks to Reconcile with Germany
To Erdogan's admirers, he's an idealist, while his detractors view him as an ideologue. More than anything, though, the Turkish president is an opportunist.
During the first half of the year, Erdogan set out on a course of confrontation with Germany. He accused the Germans of "Nazi practices" and of supporting terrorism, and at the end of April, Turkish officials arrested German journalist Mesale Tolu. Two months later, they took human rights activist Peter Steudtner into custody. In off the record discussions, German diplomats warned journalists of further arrests, saying that Erdogan was collecting hostages.
At the end of July, the German government changed tack, with Foreign Minister Gabriel announcing a new direction for German-Turkish relations. He issued a travel advisory warning Germans not to travel to Turkey and he placed government export credit guarantees for German companies doing business with Turkey under review. Defense exports were also to be frozen.
The shift in strategy triggered nervousness in Ankara. Company owners and industrialists called Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and warned against a breech with Germany, arguing that the Turkish economy is dependent on investments from Europe. Erdogan then ordered his people to patch up relations with Germany after the national elections there in September.
At some point, Gabriel stumbled across something that Erdogan had once said about the Germans, namely that there was only one German who truly understood Turkey, and that was former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. "When I heard that, I called Gerd up and asked him if he would like to mediate," Gabriel recalls. The former chancellor agreed, but said he first wanted to speak to current Chancellor Angela Merkel to be able to address Erdogan credibly.
Schröder traveled to Istanbul a week after the German election, which was held on Sept. 24. Erdogan offered a deal: If Germany extradited Turkish military officers wanted in Turkey in connection with the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, he would be prepared to release Yücel, Steudtner and the others. Schröder refused. "Even if I were still chancellor, I wouldn't do that," he said. A short time later, Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, also traveled to Istanbul.
Erdogan came up with more items for his wish list,requesting that German defense companies modernize Turkish tanks. He wanted better armor to protect American-made M60 tanks against mines and a "Hard-Kill" defense system for German-built Leopard 2 tanks.
Both sides were sending signals of reconciliation and in October 2017, the high-level German Federal Security Council, whose approval is required for defense exports, gave the green light to a preliminary request for the upgrading of the M60 tanks. At this point, Turkey released human rights activist Steudtner. On Nov. 4, 2017, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu invited his German counterpart Gabriel to Antalya. Shortly before Christmas, journalist Mesale Tolu was released from detention.
The End of 2017: Yücel Fears a Dirty Deal.
Yücel had filed a lawsuit contesting his detention with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and on Tuesday, Nov. 28, the Turkish government filed its own brief, which did not include any new evidence. For the first time, a seed of real hope began to sprout that Yücel might be released. "When we saw that after 10 months of comprehensive investigation, they still hadn't found anything, I knew they weren't going to succeed," recalls Ulf Poschardt, who has since been promoted to become Die Welt's editor-in-chief.
Just after Christmas, Erdogan flew to Tunisia and dictated a sentence to the journalists traveling on the flight. "We have to reduce the number of enemies and increase the number of friends," he said.
"That's good," Poschardt wrote in a Die Welt editorial. "Germany shouldn't slap away an olive branch that has been extended." Poschardt knew that he was in a dual position as a journalist and as Yücel's employer and that he didn't want to create any additional complications that might hinder his correspondent's release. "Whenever I have written about Turkey," he says, "I have done so in recognition of that fact," he says.
On Jan. 6, negotiations intensified, with Gabriel inviting his Turkish counterpart to his home in Goslar in the Harz Mountains. German politicians criticized Gabriel for personally serving his guest tea out of a Turkish teapot, but the Turkish media praised the gesture. The German foreign minister also raised the prospect that Germany might agree to upgrade Turkey's Leopard 2 tanks.
When Yücel learned about the tank deal in jail, he decided to give an interview to the German news agency DPA, which was conducted in writing through his lawyer. "I am not to be used for any dirty deals," Yücel wrote to the agency. He said he didn't want his freedom to be "tainted by tank deals with Rheinmetall or the activities of any other brothers in arms."
This triggered alarm among diplomats in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, who worried that Yücel's words could torpedo efforts to secure his release. Executives were also unhappy at Springer, which publishes Die Welt. Editor-in-Chief Poschardt had even called the editor-in-chief of DPA to lay out the potential consequences the interview could have. But neither DPA nor Yücel budged. "You can't forbid Deniz from doing anything," says Poschardt.
But it was the Turkish military offensive in northern Syria a few days later rather than Yücel's objections that would scupper an initial deal. Images from the front showed the very same Leopard 2 tanks that Berlin was supposed to upgrade. They were being used in an offensive against the Kurdish militia YPG in the city of Afrin.
At that point, Gabriel made the decision to meet personally with Erdogan. Rather than aggressively confronting the president, he sought to cultivate Erdogan's goodwill. On Feb. 4, he secretly traveled to Rome, where Erdogan was visiting the pope. Gabriel and Erdogan met for two hours in the Hotel Excelsior. It was only at the very end that Gabriel broached the Yücel case. He asked the Turkish president for his advice on the matter. Erdogan promised that he would do his part to ensure that the proceedings were expedited.
When the Turkish president invited the German foreign minister to Istanbul a week later, Gabriel knew things were heading in the right direction. At the meeting, the two discussed in precise detail how to further proceed.
Very few people had knowledge of the secret negotiations. Gabriel didn't even tell Chancellor Merkel of the breakthrough until two days prior to Yücel's release.
February 2018: How Yücel's Departure from Turkey Nearly Failed
Friday turned out to be a special day for Veysel Ok, the lawyer who represents both Yücel and Ahmet Altan, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Taraf who has been imprisoned at Silivri for a year and a half. A decision was expected from the court on both cases that day.
That morning, Ok sat at a highway rest stop located near Silivri together with Yücel's wife Dilek Mayatürk and German Consul General Georg Birgelen. Daniel Dylan-Böhmer, a journalist with Die Welt, author Imran Ayata and other friends had also traveled from Germany. The group was awaiting news from the court. At 11 a.m., a fellow lawyer finally called Ok on his mobile phone saying the judges had just ordered Yücel's release from detention. The case would continue, but Yücel could leave Turkey.
Cheers erupted from the rest stop and the group quickly made their way to the jail. It would take several more hours before the formalities had been taken care of and Yücel was actually freed. Ok tweeted a photo of Yücel with his arms around Mayatürk and a bunch of parsley in his hands. Ok's other client, Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan, had been less fortunate. He was sentenced that day to life in prison.
At this point, officials at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin were still nervous. They feared that the Turkish government might change its mind at the last second. Instructions were issued from Berlin to get Yücel to the airport as quickly as possible. But the journalist insisted on making a stop at his apartment in Istanbul's Bisiktas district to pick up his cat and a few personal belongings.
Yücel also recorded a video message. "I still don't know why I was arrested one year ago - or, more exactly, why I was taken hostage one year ago. And I don't know why I was released today." When Foreign Minister Gabriel heard about this, he warned Yücel against posting the video until he was outside the country.
Consul General Birgelen grew increasingly nervous. The Turkish and the German governments had agreed that Yücel would depart for Germany that same day. But employee breaks for the pilots of the jet that had been chartered by the Springer publishing company also had to be respected, meaning that time was running out for a same-day departure. At 6:50 p.m., the group finally left Besiktas. It was raining and there were traffic jams. The motorcade finally reached the airport just in time. At 8:50 p.m., the aircraft took off for Germany.
- • Freedom of the Press and Expression in Turkey: We Must Remain Defiant
- • Open Season: Erdogan Supporters Attack Turkish-German Politicians