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