Turkey has now jailed more than 50,000 people and suspended over 140,000 from their jobs, since an attempted coup in July 2016 that the government charges was orchestrated by a group of military officers and followers of the United State-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Since then, Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown has rounded up not only the suspected coup plotters, but also purged thousands of political opponents, academics and journalists. Half the country’s judges were suspended, compounding the problem of managing the judicial process.
“Many of us are concerned today by the length and scope of the ongoing state of emergency,” Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, said in a speech to some 400 candidate judges and prosecutors from the Turkish Justice Academy. “Measures taken must be strictly proportionate to the situation and limited in time.”
“We are concerned that so many journalists, members of parliament, mayors and human rights defenders are deprived of their liberty,” he went on. “The result of casting the net too widely is to spread a chilling effect across society as a whole.”
Mr. Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway, met with President Erdogan and senior officials in Ankara on Thursday to raise the issues, as he sought to remind Turkey of its commitments to the rule of law as a member of the Council of Europe and signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mr. Jagland’s words carried weight in Turkey. He was one of the first foreign officials to condemn the attempted coup of July 2016 — he won applause from his audience in appreciation — and he spoke with understanding of the trauma Turkey had experienced from the bloody events, which left 250 people dead.
He emphasized the need to prosecute those responsible. But he also laid out the judicial quandary that Turkey has presented to the Council of Europe and in its broader relationship with Europe.
Every citizen of Turkey has the right to apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if their rights are violated. The court faces being inundated with cases if the rule of law fails in Turkey, Mr. Jagland said.
Nearly 120,000 purged government employees have applied to have their cases reviewed in Turkey. If they do not find justice, they are likely to turn to Strasbourg for recourse. Some 2,000 Turks have already appealed to the European court.
“It would be much better for Turkey to handle them at home,” Mr. Jagland said in an interview after his speech.
If thousands of cases came to Strasbourg, it would ruin Turkey’s relations with Europe and its chances to be accepted into the European Union, he added.
The case of two of the journalists condemned to life imprisonment Friday — a well-known author and journalist, Ahmet Altan; and his brother, a columnist, Mehmet Altan — showed the arbitrary nature of Turkey’ judicial system that has become the norm in recent months.
Both men had appealed to Turkey’s constitutional court questioning the legality of their pretrial detention. Although the constitutional court ordered their release, the lower court ignored the decision and handed down the most severe penalty possible — “aggravated life.”
There is little doubt among lawyers, human rights officials and journalists following the myriad cases before Turkey’s courts that politics plays a large part in the decisions.
“This shows that there is no judicial security for anyone in Turkey,” said Turgut Kazan, a veteran lawyer and former head of the Istanbul Bar Association. “An issue is resolved as part of Turkey-Germany meeting, but three important journalists were sentenced to aggravated life for using violence. How they can use violence by writing articles?”
Four others in the case also received the same sentences: Nazli Ilicak, a news anchor and columnist; Fezvi Yazici, a page designer; Yakup Simsek, an advertising director; and Sukru Tugrul Ozsengul, a former police officer and commentator on security issues.
“The Turkish judiciary has never been in such a bad period as today,” he added.
With Germany’s small breakthrough on Friday, many in Europe are looking at how it has handled Turkey.
Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel drew a line with Turkey last summer after a German national was among 10 human rights professionals arrested during a conference in Istanbul. Germany issued a travel advisory warning business travelers and tourists that they risked arbitrary arrest if they traveled to Turkey.
The threat to investment and tourism was enough to cause the Turkish government to change its ways, European diplomats and analysts say. Turkey toned down it antagonistic rhetoric, and started to release some of the citizens that Germany considered political cases.
Of a dozen in jail last summer, about half have been released, although most still faces charges. Mr. Yucel’s case has been among the most prominent.
“The Turks seem to be walking a fine line between strong rhetoric and finding areas of compromise,” said Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at Brookings and former foreign policy official in the Obama administration. “Doing the right thing removes a bilateral irritant but does not fully repair relations.”
Mr. Gabriel urged that the moment Friday be seized as a chance to resume discussions with Turkey, despite domestic debates over Turkey’s use of German tanks against the Kurds in northern Syria.
But he, too, nodded to Europe’s concerns that Mr. Erdogan was using his state of emergency to roll back democratic norms.
“Large differences of opinion between us remain, but I think there is also evidence that it makes sense despite such difficulties to remain in dialogue with one another and to try to help Turkey to end the state of emergency, to return to the previous, or similar views about the development of the European Union, the rule of law and democracy,” he said.
Despite the relief at one man’s freedom, many Germans remained wary.
“Freed hostages do not make a springtime. There are still Germans sitting in Erdogan’s dungeons, without even mentioning the thousands of Turks,” wrote Berthold Kohler, publisher of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine daily. “But Yucel’s deportation, faced with the threat of 18 years in prison and other sights at least indicated that Turkey, a NATO partner, is interested in détente.”