Relations between Turkey and Germany have lurched further into crisis after the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accused Berlin of “aiding and abetting” terror in an increasingly acrimonious row over the arrest and incarceration of a German-Turkish journalist in Turkey.
In a speech in Istanbul, Erdoğan said that Deniz Yücel, a correspondent for Die Welt, was both a German spy and a “representative” of the outlawed Kurdish rebel group, PKK.
Yücel was formally arrested this week pending a trial on charges of propaganda and incitement to hatred. Erdoğan accused Berlin of harbouring him for a month at the German consulate in Istanbul before agreeing to hand him over to authorities.
“They need to be put on trial for aiding and abetting terrorism,” Erdoğan said.
His comments came after hours after Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdağ, was prevented from holding a rally in a south-west German town ahead of next month’s referendum on giving the Turkish president greater powers.
Bozdağ urged Germany, which is home to a Turkish diaspora of an estimated 1.4 million people, to take a look at its own history, suggesting he was facing discriminated on racial grounds. “Let them look back at their history,” Bozdağ said in a speech. “We see the old illnesses flaring up.”
He was speaking just hours after the town hall in Gaggenau where his rally would have taken place was evacuated over a bomb threat.
Turkish politicians hope to rally the support of Turks in Germanybefore the referendum next month to increase Erdoğan’s power. The proposals include allowing the president to abolish the post of prime minister, appoint more judges and extend his time in office.
The rejections have prompted Ankara to accuse the German government of trying to hinder Erdoğan’s attempts at constitutional reform. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşogğlu, accused the government of Angela Merkel of deliberately trying to “prevent Turkey from becoming strong”.
Çavuşoğlu summoned Germany’s ambassador in Ankara, Martin Erdmann, to the ministry on Thursday, demanding an explanation for the cancellation of Bozdağ’s speech.
On Sunday, the city of Cologne rejected a request by the Turkish economy minister, Nihat Zeybekci, to give a speech and it emerged on Friday that another planned appearance by the minister in the town of Frechen had been cancelled by local authorities. There have been widespread reports that Erdoğan, who has campaigned in Germany before, was also planning a political rally in the country.
In Gaggenau, authorities cancelled Bozdağ’s rally on security grounds on Thursday. Authorities cited a lack of space in the car park. Police then received an anonymous phone call which they said was made by a caller warning of a bomb threat in revenge for the cancellation.
No evidence of an actual bomb had been uncovered by Friday afternoon. Authorities said they believed the threat was a hoax but one they had treated seriously.
Gökay Sofuoğlu, chair of the Turkish community in Germany, warned against an escalation of the tensions. He told the radio broadcaster RBB that the Turkish government was exploiting the rejections, particularly that of Bozdağ, for its own means. “It wants to increase its vote among the Turks living in Germany, by presenting Germany as both the new and old bogeyman,” Sofuoğlu said.
But Merkel’s government is under increasing pressure from across the political divide in Germany to stand up to Erdoğan. There are fears that he is exploiting a refugee deal between Ankara and the EU, under which thousands of refugees are prevented from entering mainland Europe.
Merkel faces increasing claims that she has, in effect, opened herself up to political blackmail, with critics citing her failure to confront Erdoğan over human rights concerns, including the imprisonment of Yücel, whose arrest is being widely seen as part of Erdoğan’s crackdown on the press. More than 150 Turkish journalists have been jailed since the attempted coup.
As campaigns across Germany demand Yücel’s release, a letter from the journalist was published saying he was in good spirits and the conditions he was being held in were comfortable.
“Hello World,” he wrote. “After being kept in police detention for 13 days … it might sound strange but I feel like I have regained a tiny part of my freedom: daylight! Fresh air! Proper food! Tea and instant coffee! Cigarettes! Newspapers! A real bed! A toilet I can use when I want … Although it has deprived me of my freedom, the process of being interrogated and the reason for the (arrest) decision still make me laugh … I thank friends, acquaintances, colleagues and all the people who put up a fight for me. Believe it, this does me good, very good indeed.”