Deniz is Die Welt’s Turkey correspondent, and he was arrested in February 2017, after reporting to the police in Istanbul. He had learned from the media that he was being searched in the context of the so-called Redhack affair, which exposed the private email correspondence of energy minister Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Like many other Turkish and international journalists, Deniz had reported on the affair. But when he visited the Istanbul police headquarters, he was taken into custody and then formally arrested for suspicion of incitement of the population and propaganda for terrorism.
His arrest sparked a deep crisis in Turkish-German relations. Negotiations and political pressure to release Deniz were in vain, and he was put in solitary confinement for months. In December 2017, it would be 300 days and we had to think of a way to commemorate this extremely difficult period of time. That’s how we came up with the idea for our December 9, 2017, newspaper edition.
For those who have never been to jail, it is hard to imagine spending your life in a tiny 4.18- by 3.10-meter cell. What these numbers convey, however, is a sense of extreme narrowness. We wanted to create a newspaper that would give readers a feeling of Deniz’ experience, and we wanted to honour more than 100 journalists who were (and still are) being jailed in Turkey.
If you open up the pages of our December 9, 2017, special issue and arrange the sheets on the ground, you see a real-size floor plan of Deniz’ cell in Silivri High Security Prison near Istanbul.
Deniz sent us all the details and measures in letters and sketches. He copied every corner, every item, and wrote down every length and distance. His lawyers received the materials in prison and e-mailed them to us in Berlin. Deniz was not allowed to keep a ruler in his cell, so he took all measurements with an issue of Hürriyet newspaper, which was available to prisoners.
His wife measured the newspaper’s precise length and width and provided Deniz with that information during one of her weekly visits. Deniz then used the pages to measure everything else in his cell, even his shoes and the length and position of his toothbrush. The numbers alone filled 15 sheets of paper in his letters to us. That’s what you call thorough research.
A team of 15 Die Welt layout and graphic designers headed by Katja Fischer, Patrizia Plate, and Juliane Schwarzenberg converted Deniz’ information into the floor plan. The conversion took approximately 220 hours!
The life-size floor plan also created a challenge for the editors because it would require approximately twice as many pages as a regular Saturday issue. And we needed stories to fill the pages on the back sides of the floor plan.
We knew, of course, that even the biggest effort and the most meticulous work would only give a very faint idea of our correspondent’s true life on 12.96 square meters.
In his cell, Deniz would sleep and be awake, wash, eat, read books, and watch TV. The prison shop would deliver certain things Deniz had ordered by sending in short written notes. In his cell, he hoped for and formulated his trial defense, but it was unclear when and whether he would get a trial at all, since the prosecutor had not even submitted an indictment.
All Deniz could do was to work and wait. And he could only ever take a few steps outside in a courtyard that was connected to his cell, a similarly small space, surrounded by high walls and covered with wire mesh.
Deniz was alone for most of his 279 days in prison, isolated from fellow inmates. His human interaction was limited to one family visit per week, when he could talk to his wife Dilek through a pane of glass and speakers. Apart from Dilek, only his lawyers were allowed to see him for strictly legal conversations.
On the last Sunday before the publication of our special issue, something unexpected happened: Deniz was transferred to a new cell. At first, we thought we had to start again from scratch, but it turned out there was only one difference compared to his former cell. His locker was located 12.5 centimeters further from the wall.
However, his life in the new cell was very different. The courtyard was connected to the cell of the Turkish TV journalist Oguz Usluer. They could meet during the day, talk, and share their meals. These new conditions were, of course, unlike any form of regular detention. If anything, they presented a mitigated form of isolation. But for Deniz and for us, it felt like a step towards real freedom.
That’s what we told our readers when we published the prison cell issue. We now know that there was reason for hope. On February 16, 2018, two months after the publication of the floor plan and more than one year after being taken into custody, Deniz Yücel was released from prison. He left Turkey on the same day.