German human rights activist released from Turkish jail

Dilek Kurban analyses: Does this represent hope for other Germans imprisoned in Turkey?

On 25 October, Turkey released eight human rights activists from jail, including German citizen Peter Steudtner. The release of Steudtner and fellow activists represents "the first sign of a thaw”, according to German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Just hours before his release, Hertie School Fellow Dilek Kurban spoke with Deutsche Welle about the human rights situation in Turkey. Watch the full interview here (3 mins).

After the release of the eight human rights workers, we asked Kurban to address the latest developments. She offers the following analysis ahead of a Dahrendorf Forum workshop at the Hertie School, 27 October, where Kurban will introduce the topic of populism in Turkey and Europe.

Question: Does this represent hope for other Germans imprisoned in Turkey?

Dilek Kurban: It is not possible to give a definitive answer to this question, since it is based on the implicit assumption that Steudtner’s release is the outcome of a legal process. In the absence of rule of law in Turkey, what determined Steudtner’s detention, arrest and ultimate release were political decisions given at the highest levels of the state and not reasoned legal judgements of independent courts. One should note that the arrest of Steudtner, and that of Swedish national Ali Ghravi, was part of a broader government crackdown against human rights defenders in Turkey. In other words, as far as this case is concerned, Steudtner was not necessarily personally targeted as a German, although his nationality might have further aroused the suspicions of the officials and aggravated the ‘sensitivity’ of the case.

It is also important to point out that yesterday’s release of all eight human rights defenders who had attended the human rights training workshop in Büyükada followed an intensive global campaign by Amnesty International, which was justifiably alarmed by the fact that both its Turkey director and Turkey chair were imprisoned – a first in its institutional history. Therefore, the rare good news we received from Turkey yesterday speaks to the power of international human rights advocacy as well as external political pressure.

As for other Germans still in prison for political reasons, they seem to be a mixed group of individuals. There are the journalists Deniz Yücel and Meşale Tolu, who are held in pre-trial detention on terrorism charges. What principally distinguishes them from Steudtner is their dual nationality, which boosts the Turkish government’s sovereignty argument and weakens Germany’s chances for diplomatic intervention. Also, unlike Steudtner, Yücel and Tolu were personally targeted for their journalistic activities and perceived political views. We know virtually nothing about the remaining Germans; they are unnamed and unknown individuals who, therefore, do not enjoy the international outcry that Steudtner’s arrest has caused. And this is certainly not good news for them.  

What we are talking about here are political trials; there is nothing ‘legal’ about them. Defendants are prosecuted for their lawful professional and/or political activities; they are accused of terrorism in the absence of any material evidence to back these charges. Whether they will be released, and if so, the nature of any release, will not be determined by an impartial legal process but by the political will at the highest level. In the absence of effective international pressure on the Turkish government and in light of the regime’s tight grip of the judiciary, it is impossible to speak definitively about the fate of German nationals trapped in Turkey. Just as all detained Germans may suddenly be released (for example as part of a behind-closed-doors political bargain between Berlin and Ankara), they may just as well be convicted to years of imprisonment in order to reinforce the power of the Erdoğan regime.

I cannot help but add a final few words. As much as Germany’s attention to its citizens is understandable, it has moral, political and legal obligations to stand in solidarity with Turkish nationals who are in jail or facing jail time on similar bogus allegations. The imprisonment of around a dozen elected Kurdish members of parliament, a hundred elected Kurdish mayors and hundreds of human rights lawyers, journalists, activists and academics who have done nothing but exercise their individual rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights in an EU accession country which receives billions in military, economic and political aid from the EU and its members – including Germany – should have caused an outrage. Yet, apart from occasional gratuitous expressions of concern, Europe stands by and watches. If the EU’s accession criteria, Europe’s political values and Turkey’s human rights obligations under European law are to mean anything, European decision makers must take effective action to hurt the military, political and financial interests of the Erdoğan regime. Otherwise, this will be yet another chapter in modern European history where the complicity and complacency of those in power will be remembered with shame.   

More about Dilek Kurban