German-Turkish journalist lands in Berlin after year in Turkish jail

Stuart Williams with Frank Zeller in Berlin
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Deniz Yucel, a reporter with Germany's Die Welt newspaper, returned to his home in Istanbul after spending a year in jail

A German-Turkish journalist who was freed in Turkey after spending more than a year in jail without trial arrived in Berlin within hours of his release on Friday, according to German media.

A Cessna-type jet landed at Tegel airport in the west of the capital, AFP reporters said. German news agency DPA and the N24 news channel said he was on board, although he was not seen by journalists waiting at the airport.

His surprise release may help repair severely-eroded ties between Ankara and Berlin.

Deniz Yucel, 44, the Turkey-based correspondent of Die Welt newspaper, had been held since February 14, 2017 on accusations of supporting terror groups.

In a fast-moving day of events, he was freed after prosecutors finally unveiled an indictment detailing the charges against him and requesting he be jailed for 18 years.

Just hours later, he left Turkey on a plane via Istanbul airport, an AFP correspondent said.

Prosecutors charged Yucel with "making terror propaganda" and "inciting public hatred and hostility", state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

But critically, the court also ordered that he be allowed to go free, potentially drawing the curtain on the biggest bone of contention of a major crisis between the two NATO allies.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the court-ordered release was "unconditional", meaning Yucel would be able to leave the country.

Looking tired but happy, Yucel was seen returning to his apartment in Istanbul's Besiktas district, an AFP correspondent said.

Leaving the country would allow him to be tried in absentia thereby avoiding any jail time if convicted.

- Bittersweet day for journalists -

Yucel's incarceration has been the biggest stumbling block to rebuilding badly-damaged ties between the governments of Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan had repeatedly described Yucel as a "terror agent" causing consternation in Germany.

Merkel welcomed his release and thanked "all those" who worked to free him, but also added a word on behalf of others still held in Turkey.

"I know there are other people, perhaps less well known, who are in prison in Turkey and we hope their legal proceedings will be resolved quickly," she said.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said news of Yucel's release was "encouraging" but stressed that "many more such cases must follow so that EU-Turkey relations can really improve."

News of Yucel's release broke as an Istanbul court jailed three prominent Turkish journalists for life on charges of links to the group blamed for the failed 2016 coup.

Gauri van Gulik, Europe Director for Amnesty International, said their sentencing had "drained the joy from celebrations" over Yucel's release.

- 'Welcome to freedom!' -

Germany, home to a three-million-strong ethnic Turkish minority, has strongly criticised Erdogan's rights record, especially during his government's mass crackdown following the failed 2016 coup.

Turkey has so far arrested more than 55,000 people, among them a number of German citizens or dual nationals who are seen by Berlin as political hostages.

Many German newspapers had on Wednesday marked Yucel's first full year in custody without charge with front-page stories and the #FreeDeniz campaign held a major solidarity event in Berlin.

Politicians and commentators also used the hashtag to celebrate his release with Justice Minister Heiko Maas tweeting: "The best news in a long time: Welcome to freedom!"

Merkel had on Thursday told visiting Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Yucel's detention stood in the way of efforts on both sides to improve "clouded" relations and marked a continuing "burden".

On Friday, Yildirim cautiously welcomed Yucel's release, suggesting it would ease tensions with Berlin.

"Some of the issues causing some problems in Germany-Turkey relations in the past period seem to be resolved today," he said.

- Relations slowly thawing? -

Yucel gave himself up to police last year after initially taking refuge inside a German diplomatic compound in Istanbul following reports that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

He has been in custody ever since.

Relations between the two countries had recently started to recover from their deep crisis after Turkey released several German citizens.

Berlin had last year advised German investors and holidaymakers to avoid Turkey.

German media reports said Gabriel held two secret meetings with Erdogan about the issue this year -- one in Rome and another in Istanbul -- with former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a personal friend of the Turkish leader, present at the Istanbul talks.

But Gabriel vehemently denied any "deal" for Yucel's release as reports emerged suggesting Ankara had its eye on Berlin upgrading its German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks.