Turkish journalist freed, causes rift between AKP, CHP
ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkish journalist Cüneyt Ünal returned safely home Nov. 18 after three months in a Syrian prison, but his handover to a group of opposition party lawmakers by the Damascus regime has annoyed ruling party officials.
Ünal entered Turkey from Hatay’s Yayladağı border gate, which is close to the Syrian city of Latakia, with Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmakers, and went to Ankara to meet his family. There is no information on the fate of Ünal’s colleague Bashar Fahmi, but CHP Hatay deputy Refik Eryılmaz said Syrian officials had promised they would find out what has happened to the reporter.
“I am very happy. I have come to my homeland, and I am free now. I thank my colleagues, lawmakers and NGOs for their support,” Ünal said, barely speaking through tears at the Yayladağı border gate. “I was kept in a cell for almost 90 days. I’m barely speaking at the moment, because I have not spoken to anybody since then. I have been kept alone in a cell and the only thing I saw was cold walls.”
Ünal and Fahmi – a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin – both working for the U.S.-based al-Hurra TV, were caught up in the fighting in Aleppo Aug. 20 that killed Japanese journalist Mika Yamamoto. After Fahmi was seriously injured, Ünal carried his injured colleague into an apartment building where some Aleppo residents tended to his wound. The cameraman left the building to seek more help but was captured by a group of people who later handed him over to Syrian government forces.
Ünal said he had been held alone in a prison cell in Aleppo for the past three months, living on bread and potatoes, but was not ill-treated. His captors even took him to the hospital for treatment when he became ill, he said. He was brought to Damascus three days before his release.
Eryılmaz met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last month in Damascus and discussed the situation of the two Turkish journalists, who had been captured in the summer by Syrian soldiers. Al-Assad reportedly told Eryılmaz that he did not know the situation of Ünal, but promised to release him if he was in the hands of the Syrian government. Later on, Eryılmaz was informed that Ünal was in prison in Aleppo, and could be handed over to a Turkish delegation.
A delegation composed of CHP lawmakers, Ehli Beyt Culture and Solidarity Foundation head Ali Yeral and representatives of journalist associations went to Syria on Nov. 17 to bring Ünal back to Turkey.
“I hand over my brother [Ünal] to the Turkish people through you,” Eryılmaz quoted al-Assad as saying.
Nevertheless, Ünal’s handover to a delegation led by the CHP stirred a fresh debate between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition.
In laying out his position, AKP spokesman Hüseyin Çelik described the development as “meaningful.”
“It’s meaningful that Ünal was handed over to a CHP delegation instead of Turkish authorities or an NGO. Everybody knows its meaning. Everybody knows that the CHP lends it support to al-Assad and CHP members carry al-Assad posters in demonstrations while they are shouting no to war.”
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in response, slammed Çelik, saying that he would send his lawmakers anywhere in the world to rescue “his people.”
“A journalist [Ünal] went to Syria for news reporting. His wife and journalist associations requested that we rescue him. And our lawmakers went there and rescued him. Normally, they [the AKP officials] should have thanked us. I would send all my 135 lawmakers anywhere in the world if one of our people were to be released,” Kılıçdaroğlu told reporters late Nov. 17 in Istanbul.
President Abdullah Gül, for his part, praised the CHP lawmakers’ efforts to rescue Ünal.
“We should appreciate all endeavors. As I said before, they are all professional journalists; we should not look askance at them. They are doing their duty... The lawmakers’ efforts are praiseworthy,” Gül said Nov. 17 in Karabük.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also thanked CHP lawmakers for their efforts and said he was happy about Ünal’s release in his hometown, Manisa.