Shelter from the storm

May 15, 2017

A group of about 20 people stand in a circle under a portico beside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, talking, and taking shelter from a spring downpour. They are discussing whether or not to come back again next week.

Tourists stand between the gate’s columns and pose for photos. Visitors take a Sunday stroll along the tree-lined avenue leading to Tiergarten. Nearby, the flags of America, Russia, France and Britain flutter on embassy poles. Further off, the red, gold and black of Germany fly over the rain-splattered glass dome of the Reichstag.

The men and women meeting beside the gate are mostly teachers and university lecturers from the Germany branch of Academics for Peace, an initiative formed in 2012 to draw attention to the hunger strikes of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey. Here, they are taking part in a second symbolic day-long hunger strike to highlight the plight of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, two Turkish educators who were fired from their posts last year under the state of emergency legislation implemented after the July 15 coup attempt. Gülmen and Özakça are approaching 70 days on nothing but sugar- and salt-water, following a far longer daily sit-in protest on Yüksel Caddesi in Ankara. Their aim is to win back their jobs, and rights for the thousands of others like them who have been arrested or dismissed from their posts. So far, Gülmen has lost over 8kg; Özakça more than 17kg. The health of both has deteriorated badly.

Mustafa, one of the protesters in Berlin, has gathered up the placards and banners that the group had laid out on the pavement of Pariser Platz before the rain began. It is difficult to tell what impact, if any, their protest was having, he tells me. People walk by, glance at the posters, and keep going. I say that it seems extraordinary that academics would feel they have to starve themselves in order to defend their livelihoods. “They have no legal options. All they have left to fight with is their own bodies,” he replies.

Turkey says that the targets of its purge are the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a cleric living in exile in rural Pennsylvania. Ankara believes that Gülen orchestrated the attempted coup last summer and has built up a parallel state within the Turkish judiciary, academia, security forces and military. Gülen’s extradition is on the agenda when Erdoğan meets with President Trump in Washington this week. Others have been dismissed or arrested for alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK – a terrorist organisation in they eyes of Turkey, the EU and US. Others, like Betul Celep, a left-wing former civil servant recently featured in an FT report on Turkey’s Blacklist, seem to have simply not fitted into the government’s vision of the New Turkey it has promised to build.

In part because its large Turkish community, Germany seems like a natural diplomatic buffer against Erdoğan’s most repressive policies. The majority of Turkish voters in Germany supported Erdoğan’s push for increased executive powers in the recent referendum, but opposition to his government is nonetheless strong here overall. Merkel’s government has emerged as a bulwark against right-wing populism, with which Erdoğan clearly shares many traits, even if his government insists on painting itself only as one of its victims.

Germany has a powerful voice in the EU, Turkey’s largest trading partner. After weeks of anti-European rhetoric in the run up to Turkey’s April referendum, Ankara is now calling for closer ties and progress in EU accession talks.

When Germany granted asylum to Turkish military and diplomatic personnel who fear being caught up in the purge, Turkey stopped German politicians from visiting soldiers posted at Incirlik air base. In contrast to a similar spat last year, this time Germany was quick to threaten to move the soldiers elsewhere, taking its planned investment in Incirlik’s infrastructure with them.

A couple of weeks ago, on World Press Freedom Day, Pariser Platz was host to a very different scene to the one I found on Sunday. Thousands attended a concert and rally in support of imprisoned journalists around the world, dedicated in particular to Deniz Yucel, a German journalist of Turkish descent who has been in jail in Turkey since February. The German government has appealed for his release, but – publicly at least – there is little sign of progress. President Erdoğan himself has ruled out releasing Yucel for as long as he is in power.

If Germany is unable to secure the release of Yucel, is there really any hope that it can assert influence regarding the tens of thousands of Turkish citizens who have been either locked up in jail, or locked out of their own society?

Mustafa says he hopes people will start to listen. He and the group will keep coming back to Brandenburger Tor for as long as it takes.

Over the weekend in Ankara, meanwhile, police arrested 13 people who had joined a protest on Yuksel Caddesi to show their support for Gülmen and Özakça.