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ANALYSIS: Release of German-Turkish journalist tainted by 'political' deal

Questions are being asked about what Berlin may have offered in exchange for Deniz Yucel's release last week
German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel leaves his home in Istanbul on 16 February 2018 following his release from prison (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – It was a fantastic day for Deniz Yucel, his loved ones, and Turkey’s journalist community, when he was released last week, after spending more than a year in jail - during which time he was not even formally indicted.   

But the sequence of events leading to the dual German-Turkish citizen's release on 16 February and those that followed has raised questions about Berlin’s apparently flexible ethics on universally accepted values.

There are strong suggestions of a potential backroom deal with Ankara to secure the journalist's release.

German media has reported that the release might have been in return for lifting a government freeze on refurbishing Leopard tanks being used by Turkey in its Afrin offensive.  

Yucel, accused of being a spy by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had himself stated in January he didn’t want his release to be part of any “dirty secret deal” when the speculation first surfaced – and at a time when his fate remained unclear.

On 15 February, a day before Yucel’s release, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on multiple occasions, including at a press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Yucel’s appearance in court would represent “hope” and could remove one obstacle damaging Turkish-German ties.

The next day, Yucel was released and later that evening flown out of the country on a private jet in the dark of night – in scenes more reminiscent of Hollywood thrillers than that of a journalist returning home.

The plane allegedly carrying Yucel lands in Berlin (AFP)

A formal indictment, issued after his release, is seeking a maximum 18-year prison sentence against him for “conducting terrorist propaganda” on behalf of the PKK and “inciting hatred and enmity among the public” based largely on articles he has written.

The Turkish government has come under severe and often-justified criticism about blatant disregard for legal norms and obligations while attempting to further its party ideology. Yet this German-Turkish deal appears to show that the West, too, is at ease with ignoring such concepts when its own interests are at stake. 

Yildirim’s response during his visit about Turkey’s use of Leopard tanks in Afrin brought into focus German duplicity - where it is happy to sell armaments used in warfare in the first place but then voices concern when those armaments are employed in conflicts.

“It is very natural that we will use them. We purchased them for such days. If we won’t use such weapons when our country is being attacked, when will we use them then?” Yildirim told a German press agency in response to a question on the use of Leopard 2 tanks during its Afrin offensive.

The case has also brought into question future German credibility when it opts to take a hard line with Ankara on the rule of law and the protection of universal human rights and values.

It does appear that politics has taken precedence over the judicial process in this case

- Uluc Ozulker, retired career diplomat

Critics of the alleged German-Turkish deal in Turkey fear it will embolden the government in Ankara to resort to such political manipulation of the judicial process in the future and endanger Turkish citizens who have no foreign government backing.

Uluc Ozulker, a retired career diplomat and former Turkish permanent representative to the EU, preferred to look at developments as a sign of re-engagement between Turkey and the West and the positives that would bring in terms of strengthening democratic traditions.

“The Turkish prime minister went to Berlin to try and improve relations. One of the steps was resolving the case of this journalist,” Ozulker told Middle East Eye. 

“It does appear that politics has taken precedence over the judicial process in this case. But if it is something that brings about an improvement in ties that benefit the larger picture, then I can accept it.”

Protestors calling for the freedom of journalist Deniz Yucel, Berlin, 19 February 2017 (Reuters)

Yusuf Kanli, coordinator of the press for freedom project run by the Turkish association of journalists, told MEE that cases, especially those involving journalists, needed to be viewed individually and in isolation.

“Apparently there has been a deal. We have no idea what the deal entails. If the journalist was a spy as Erdogan alleged and has now been released, we need to know what was given in return,” Kanli told Middle East Eye.   

If the journalist was a spy as Erdogan alleged and has now been released, we need to know what was given in return

- Yusuf Kanli, journalist

“Conjecturally speaking, it would seem it takes away the moral high ground in terms of lobbying for improved basic rights but I think it is irrelevant to look in terms of winners and losers here,” he said.

“In the end, the Ankara government has openly revealed that it exerts political control over the judiciary. The Germans can say, ‘Yes, we were right about these arrests being politically motivated,’ but that doesn’t give them any advantage either,” said Kanli.

Fabricated crises

According to Ozulker, all these recent crises have been politically manufactured and the only real issues that need solving to solidify Turkey’s relationship with the EU are a solution to Cyprus, divided along Turkish and Greek ethnic lines since 1974, and an adherence to the Copenhagen criteria, which are the rules for joining the EU.

The southern Greek part of Cyprus was admitted into the EU in 2004 despite rejecting a UN-sponsored reunification plan widely approved by the Turkish north.

“Securing the release of Turkish-origin German citizens in Turkey was an election promise by Merkel and other German politicians. On the other hand, their jailing and similar issues in Turkey had to do with last year’s referendum,” said Ozulker.

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“These are all fabricated crises with no real substance. And even then, pushing Turkey to adhere to universal human rights and freedom of speech is the remit of the Council of Europe, not that of bilateral ties between Berlin and Ankara,” he said.

And it was Council of Europe president, Thorbjorn Jagland, who during a visit to Turkey last week, showed that the council would keep affirming to Ankara that regardless of its EU process it remained a vital partner in the council, while also constantly reminding Ankara of its commitments to the values of the body it joined soon after its establishment.

In a speech to new graduates of the Justice Academy in Ankara, Jagland touched on a wide range of critical issues, including the need to stay within the framework of the law and the importance of freedom of speech.  

A simple transactional relationship?

Others fear it is the sort of immediate short-term transactional relationship that the West usually engages in with some undemocratic states.

For Kanli, reducing Turkish-EU relations to such a level is impossible.

“I keep on saying that Turkey and the EU are too intertwined to consider anything other than a multidimensional deep relationship. They are both seriously diminished without the other,” he said.

Ozulker sees the German willingness to deal with Ankara as an example of an attitude shift underway in Western capitals vis-a-vis Turkey.

“I believe Western capitals have realised that by pushing too hard they faced a real risk of losing Turkey completely. This might be the start of a new approach to keep Ankara in the camp and try to softly nudge it to improve rights at home.”