Deniz Yücel: Erdogan let me be tortured in Turkish prison

German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel says that he was tortured during his near year-long detention in Turkey. In court testimony seen by DW, he holds Turkish President Erdogan personally responsible for the abuse.

For the first time since being released from Turkish custody, German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel spoke about the torture he experienced while being held in pretrial detention at a prison near Istanbul.

Testifying before a Berlin district court on Friday, Yücel spoke about the physical and psychological violence he experienced during his near year-long detention in the prison

The testimony that he gave in Berlin is part of an ongoing trial against him in Turkey, where prosecutors have recommended an 18-year prison sentence. A Turkish court recently ruled that Yücel, a 45-year-old former Turkey correspondent for the Germany daily Die Welt, is allowed to testify while in Germany.

Yücel spoke in Turkish while reading out his defense statement, telling DW ahead of his testimony that he chose to do so in order to prevent "deliberate mistakes being made in the translation." DW has published his testimony in Turkish.

Read more: Opinion: Deniz Yücel's release is no reason for complacency

'Speak or I'll rip out your tongue'

Yücel testified that he was "tortured for three days" during his pretrial detention in the maximum security Silivri prison, where he was held from February 2017 until February 2018.

A group of around six prison guards repeatedly insulted and threatened him, calling him a "traitor to the fatherland" as well as a "German agent."

They also repeatedly told him to walk with his head bowed down and to greet the trashcan. One time, the group of guards raided his prison cell without the presence of police, who are supposed to be present for such searches. During the raid, they forced him to throw away any newspaper clippings he had and continued to insult him.

In addition to verbal insults, Yücel told the court that he was also exposed to physical violence, including blows to his feet, chest, back and the back of his head. The assaults always took place where no cameras were installed.

In a library at the prison, one of the guards punched Yücel hard in the face. Another guard threatened him, saying: "What are the Germans paying you to betray your fatherland? Speak or I'll rip out your tongue."

Read more: Sanem Altan: 'Justice is determined in the presidential palace' 

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Deniz Yücel: A year behind bars

Yücel's story has gripped Germany for the past year. Following his arrest on February 14, 2017, he was accused of sedition and spreading terrorist propaganda but never charged. Articles he wrote about Ankara's conflict with the Kurdish minority and the failed coup of July 2016 may have prompted the allegations. He also spent time in solitary confinement which he described as "almost like torture."

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Angela Merkel: 'I am happy'

The German chancellor expressed her pleasure at the news of Yücel's release during a joint press conference with Poland's prime minister: "I am pleased, like many, many others, that he could leave prison today. I am happy, of course, for him and for his wife." She noted, however, that that there were still some "not so prominent cases" of journalists in jail in Turkey.

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Joyfully reunited

Yücel was met outside the prison by his wife, TV producer Dilek Mayatürk. They married while he was behind bars. During his time in prison, she was allowed to visit him only once a week, according to a report in the Sunday edition of Welt.

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Sigmar Gabriel expects Yücel's return

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had made continued efforts at the diplomatic level to gain the journalist's release. "This a good day for us all." He added that he expected Turkish officials to allow Yücel to leave the country.

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

German journalists and Amnesty: 'Don't forget the others'

The German Federation of Journalists (DJV) and Amnesty International, however, warned that other journalists should not be forgotten amid the good news. "The freedom of the press is still being massively eroded," said DJV's Frank Überall (pictured). Markus Beeko of Amnesty International Germany echoed his sentiment, reminding that his counterpart in Turkey remains in prison after eight months.

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Yücel released, while others given life sentences

Shortly after news came that Deniz Yücel had been freed, it was reported that three prominent Turkish journalists — Mehmet Altan (above), his brother Ahmed Altan and Nazlic Ilicak — had been sentenced to life imprisonment for links to exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. Ankara holds Gulen responsible for the failed coup. The journalists' cases have raised new alarm over the rights situation in Turkey.

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Crackdowns continues

Turkey is still under a state of emergency more than a year and a half after an attempted coup. More than 38,000 people, including journalists and teachers, are in jail, while over 110,000 have been sacked from government jobs. Ankara has told international critics that it is necessary to root out all Gulen followers for security reasons.

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Protests at detentions in Turkey

The crackdowns have, however, been met with a number of protests both in Turkey and in Germany, whose nationals have also been scrutinized by the Turkish government. The German Foreign Office is aware of 28 German citizens who were arrested in the crackdown, while 31 German nationals are banned from leaving the country.

Deniz Yücel's release triggers joyful reactions — and continued warnings

Heiko Maas: 'Overdue news'

Expressing his delight at the news of Yücel's release, German Justice Minister Heiko said that Berlin would continue to do everything in its power to gain the freedom of all German nationals unjustly imprisoned in Turkey "as quickly as possible."

'This was a case of torture'

Yücel said that there was no doubt in his mind that the abuse he suffered in prison amounted to torture. 

"The extent of the violence was not too great; it was less about inflicting physical pain than about humiliating and intimidating me. Perhaps they wanted to provoke a reaction out of me. But even so, this was a case of torture," he said.

The psychological element to the mistreatment also qualified it as torture. Yücel said that the abuse "was carried out in an organized way that sought to systematically violate the dignity of the person being abused."

Holding Erdogan responsible

Yücel holds Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally responsible for the psychological and physical violence that he underwent while in prison.

The torture was "possibly directly instigated by the Turkish president or someone in his inner circle, but in any case was the result of the smear campaign that he started and bears responsibility for."

Erdogan had dubbed Yücel a "member of the PKK" — the Kurdistan Workers' Party — as well as a "German agent." The Turkish leader later called him a "terrorist."

Yücel said he suspects that the torture was intended to further aggravate the already strained relationship that Turkey had with Germany. The journalist said this was one of the reasons he decided not to immediately talk about the abuse when he was released.

His detention caused a rift between Turkish and German governments, with Berlin using diplomatic means for the journalist's release.

The Turkish government has detained thousands of rights activists, journalists and lawyers since a botched military coup against Erdogan in 2016.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2007: Abdullah Gul becomes Turkey's first Islamist president

After years of free market reforms, Turkey's transition slowly begins to reverse. Islamist Abdullah Gul's candidacy as president in 2007 marks a clear shift away from secularist policies, and strains relations between the ruling AKP and the military. However, with broad support from both conservative Muslims and liberals, the AKP wins the parliamentary elections and Gul is elected president.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

September 2010: Constitutional reforms take hold

Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tables a constitutional reform increasing parliamentary control of the judiciary and army, effectively allowing the government to pick judges and senior military officials. The amendment, which is combined with measures also aimed at protecting child rights and the strengthening of the right to appeal, passed by a wide margin in a public referendum.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

May 2013: Dissent erupts in Gezi Park

Pent-up anger directed by young people at Erdogan, Gul and the Islamist-rooted AKP hits a boiling point in May 2013. The violent police breakup of a small sit-in aimed at protecting Istanbul's Gezi Park spurs one of the fiercest anti-government protests in years. Eleven people are killed and more than 8,000 injured, before the demonstrations eventually peter out a month later.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2015: Turkey relaunches crackdown against Kurds

A fragile ceasefire deal between the Turkish government and the Kurdish rebel PKK group breaks under the weight of tensions aggravated by the war in Syria. Military forces resume operations in the mostly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. In early 2016, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) — a breakaway PKK faction — claim responsibility for two bombings in Ankara, each killing 38 people.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2016: Military coup attempt falls short

A military coup attempt against the government shakes Turkey to its core and briefly turns the country into a war zone. Some 260 civilians die in overnight clashes with the army across five major cities. Erdogan, however, rallies supporters and the following morning rebel soldiers are ambushed by thousands of civilians on the Bosporus Bridge. The troops eventually drop their guns and surrender.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2016: President Erdogan enacts a state of emergency

In the aftermath of the failed coup, Erdogan announces a state of emergency, leading to arrests of tens of thousands of suspected coup sympathizers and political opponents. Among those detained are military and judiciary officials and elected representatives from the pro-Kurdish HDP party. The purge is later expanded to include civil servants, university officials and teachers.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

2016: Crackdown on the press

As part of Erdogan's crackdown against supposed "terrorist sympathizers," Turkey becomes one of the world's leading jailers of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. The government shuts down around 110 media outlets in the year following the coup and imprisons more than 100 journalists, including German-Turkish correspondent Deniz Yücel.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

March 2017: AKP officials try to stoke support in Western Europe

With a referendum on expanding Erdogan's presidential powers set for April 2016, AKP officials look to galvanize support among Turks living in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands. However, the Netherlands forbids Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from landing in the country, while Germany opts to cancel two rallies. Erdogan accuses both countries of Nazi-style repression.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

April 2017: Erdogan clinches referendum vote

Erdogan narrowly wins the referendum vote expanding his power. As a result, Turkey's parliamentary system is abolished in favor of a strong executive presidency. Erdogan is also allowed to remain in power potentially until 2029. However, international election monitors claim that opposition voices were muzzled and that media coverage was dominated by figures from the "yes" campaign.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

June 2018: Election wins secure Erdogan's power

Erdogan secures a new five-year term and sweeping new executive powers after winning landmark elections on June 24. His AKP and their nationalist allies also win a majority in parliament. International observers criticize the vote, saying media coverage and emergency measures gave Erdogan and the AKP an "undue advantage" in the vote.

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