Fearing Arrest At Home, Turkish Military Officers Seek Asylum In U.S.

Dec 22, 2016
Originally published on December 22, 2016 7:42 pm

A group of Turkish military officers deployed to the U.S. wants to stay in America much longer than a typical rotation for visiting foreign officers.

More than two dozen officers deployed to a NATO command in the Norfolk, Va., area, are seeking asylum in the U.S., fearing they will be wrongly imprisoned by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, NPR has learned.

The men, including Turkish navy, air force and army officers who rank from major to much more senior grades, have been accused of ties to this summer's failed coup attempt against Erdogan. Some have been posted in the U.S. for as long as three years. The regime in Ankara is already putting pressure on their family members back home.

"I just got off the phone with my brother yesterday," one officer told NPR. "He told me police officers arrived to arrest me — and if I were in Turkey right now, I [would be] arrested. ... I think they could arrest my family members."

The men who spoke to NPR asked not to be identified, to protect friends and relatives in Turkey from potential reprisals for speaking out about their circumstances. They all received arrest warrants after the coup. Many of their names were on a long list of more than 1,000 Turkish officers.

The officers told NPR that only one colleague returned to Turkey when he was relieved by the government. They said he was arrested and imprisoned.

Each officer told NPR he had nothing to do with the failed coup nor had any connection to Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in the U.S. whom Erdogan has accused of masterminding the coup. Turkey has demanded the extradition of Gulen, whom it also implicated in this week's assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara. Gulen has denied both charges.

A second, senior Turkish officer, who talked with NPR over tea and sweets, said more than 50 officers he knows have already been arrested back home — just some of the more than 100,000 people who have been detained in a huge purge affecting the Turkish military, academia, journalism and civil society.

Several Turkish officers in Virginia said they believe they're being targeted because of their English skills and their time in service with Americans or NATO nations — all now suspect under the Erdogan government.

"I did my master's degree in the U.S. and I was in a NATO position at the time" of the coup, one said. "In Turkey, they blame ... the coups on the United States or NATO. Based on this crazy fact, we are targeted."

The officers showed NPR a request from the Turkish government for surveillance camera footage from various NATO commands during the time of the July coup attempt. "Due to an ongoing investigation carried out by the office of public prosecutor in Ankara regarding the coup attempt in Turkey, the Turkish Military Authorities have demanded the surveillance camera recordings of work places and facilities between and including 15 and 20 July 2016 ... where Turkish Staff Personnel served," it said. NATO officials said they would not provide the footage.

Erdogan has also charged that some American officers supported the failed coup attempt or were aware of it — charges President Obama and his administration have firmly rejected.

Erdogan has called on Washington to hand over Gulen to face authorities in Ankara over the role Turkey says he played in the coup. The State Department says it is reviewing evidence sent by the Turks of Gulen's alleged involvement.

As for the Turkish officers in Virginia, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told NPR he could not comment on requests for asylum by foreigners, citing privacy regulations. Typical cases can last more than two years.

The requests create another point of tension between Washington and Ankara. Granting asylum to Turkish officers considered criminals by their own government might further strain the relationship at a time when the U.S. wants to keep Turkey in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. American warplanes use a Turkish air base to launch some attacks on ISIS.

Now out of work, the Turkish officers stranded in Virginia say they're getting support from their American colleagues, including at least one invitation last month to Thanksgiving dinner. They're no longer receiving their salaries, so the Turks are dipping into their savings, downsizing into smaller homes, even selling their cars and furniture. They not only need the money just to live, they said, but also to pay legal fees.

Even so, one said they actually are lucky.

"Right now, I have my family. I have my freedom. I feel safe here, thanks to the U.S.," he said. "But in Turkey, I am worried about friends and family and people, innocent people, who lost their freedom — who lost their basic human rights."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Turkey, the government has been arresting people who've been implicated in the failed political coup last summer. Tens of thousands of Turkish military officers, teachers, judges and journalists have been jailed on orders from the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Human rights groups have complained about the ongoing arrests, even allegations of torture at the hands of the Erdogan government.

Now, the story has taken a new turn, to Virginia Beach, Va., of all places. NPR has learned that more than two dozen Turkish navy, air force and army officers who worked at a NATO command there are now seeking asylum in the U.S. NPR's Tom Bowman has the exclusive story, and he joins me now from Virginia Beach. So, Tom, what are these officers telling you? Why do they say they need asylum here?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, they say they all received arrest warrants after the coup. Many of their names were on a long list of more than 1,000 Turkish officers. They deny any involvement in the coup and are afraid they'll be imprisoned if they go home. They said only one Turkish officer decided to go home in the summer from this NATO training command here, and he was arrested and is now jailed.

And, Rachel, I was able to sit down with a half dozen of these men at their homes. They ranged from a army major to more senior officers. They asked that their names not be used, but all showed me their NATO military IDs, and some of them wanted their voices disguised.

MARTIN: All right. Let's take a listen.

BOWMAN: Hey. Tom Bowman, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hi. Nice to meet you.

BOWMAN: The senior Turkish officer greets us at his front door on a quiet suburban street. Glasses of tea and sweets are served. He begins to tell his story. The first he learned of his dismissal came from an official Turkish government list his fellow officers showed him. It listed 1,200 implicated officers. His name was among them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) They say passports canceled. All rights are taken away from us. My ranks are stripped.

BOWMAN: Did it say anything about why they're doing this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) Actually, they had two sentences. They said I was participating in the coup and something - being a Gulenist.

BOWMAN: Being a Gulenist - that refers to Fetullah Gulen. He's a cleric living in the United States who Turkey says is a mastermind of the coup. Turkey has also implicated Gulen in this week's assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey. Gulen has denied both charges. I asked the senior officer about his next step.

Will you seek asylum here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) Yes, I did.

BOWMAN: You sought asylum?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) Yes, I applied for asylum because we must do this.

BOWMAN: What do you think will happen to you if you went home to Turkey?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) Oh, it's easy to answer because more than 50 officers experienced this one. They went back, and all of them are in jail now.

BOWMAN: All the Turkish officers we spoke with here denied following Gulen or having anything to do with the coup, and all of them are seeking asylum. We enter a second house, take off our shoes in customary fashion. More tea is served, and several more officers sit down and talk. All have arrest warrants. That came as a surprise to one officer. He's told his name is also on the list.

When did you learn that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) I just learned that.

BOWMAN: Right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) Yes, yes.

BOWMAN: What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) Upsetting.

BOWMAN: One of the officers, part of the Turkish navy, says his family members have been approached by police back home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through interpreter) I just had a phone call with my brother yesterday, and he told me police officers arrived at my family home and then my brother's home to arrest me. And I think, if I were in Turkey right now, I would be arrested.

BOWMAN: But did they think you were there? Or...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through interpreter) I think this is part of the manipulation. They know I am not in the country. But, you know, they try to put pressure on those associated with me. And then, also, there is some possibility that they will, you know, start to arrest our family members.

BOWMAN: Several of the officers say the real reason they've been targeted is because they're English-speakers and they've spent time with Americans and served under NATO command - all suspect now under the Erdogan government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) For myself, I did a master's degree in the United States, and I was in NATO at the time. In Turkey, they blamed that the so-called coup was arranged by the United States or NATO. Based on this crazy fact, we are being targeted.

BOWMAN: President Erdogan has charged that some American officers were actually supporting the coup or were aware of it, charges the Obama administration has firmly rejected. The Turks have provided what they say is evidence that Gulen was connected to the coup. State Department says it's now reviewing it. Now, out of work, the Turkish officers are dipping into their savings, downsizing into smaller homes, even selling cars and furniture - not only to live, but to pay legal fees. But one says they are actually lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through interpreter) Right now, I have my family. I have my freedom. I feel safe here thanks to United States. But in Turkey, I am very worried about my friends. I am worried about my family. I am worried about people - innocent people who lost their freedom, who lost their basic human rights.

BOWMAN: Stuck in legal limbo in Virginia Beach, the officers say they're getting support from their American colleagues, who offer encouragement and invitations. One Turkish officer said he had Thanksgiving dinner with some American officers.

MARTIN: Fascinating, Tom. We should just note again that we disguised the voices of some of the people you spoke with because of their concerns about their own safety. So, as you note, these Turkish officers have applied for asylum. How long does that take?

BOWMAN: Well, Rachel, it can take more than two years, so these officers will have a long wait. And if that doesn't work, they told me they'll seek asylum in other countries. But here's the thing - just the mere fact that these Turkish officers are seeking asylum in the U.S. will clearly upset the government of President Erdogan. Remember, he thinks that, you know, the U.S. is involved in this somehow or at least supporting it or aware of some of the things. So the U.S. desperately needs Turkey - that's part of the problem here - because U.S. warplanes fly out of a Turkish base to attack the Islamic State in neighboring Syria.

MARTIN: Complicated, to say the least. NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.