In Their Own Words: Eight Turkish Officers Seeking Asylum in Greece

An interview with the eight Turkish officers who fled to Greece after the July 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. Turkish authorities are requesting extradition on the grounds that the officers were involved in the coup and participated in a plot to assassinate President Erdogan. The extradition request will be examined in three hearings at the Greek Supreme Court, on January 10th, 11th and 13th.
By Augustine Zenakos

The Olympic Village in Athens looks like a ghost town. Built to accommodate the athletes of the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, it has since been converted to public housing, but today its wide open, empty spaces have an eerie quality. Most people seem to have forgotten about it, much like the promise that the Games would bring economic development and increase Greece’s international stature.

As I drive up to the Olympic Village Police Station, a detached building with hundreds of meters of open space around it, I find myself thinking that this is a very fitting place to hold the eight Turkish officers who have been seeking asylum in Greece. Everybody would rather forget about them, too.

The eight officers, who fled to Greece one day after the July 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey, have been a nightmare for the Greek authorities. Who can convincingly maintain that they can expect a fair trial in Turkey? Who can say that they will not face cruel treatment and even torture? Greece, however, is a party to the infamous “Turkey-EU Agreement” regarding the return of refugees, which stipulates that Turkey is to be considered a “safe third country”. So, how can it be safe and indifferent to human rights at the same time? Greek diplomacy is certainly susceptible to some nationalistic blustering from time to time, but directly questioning Turkey’s democratic credentials in the middle of a refugee crisis might not be the subtlest –or the most constructive– of diplomatic moves. As for Turkey, all this is undoubtedly humiliating: eight officers took a military helicopter and defected to Greece. It stands to reason that for Recep Tayyip Erdogan this is a matter of prestige.

Turkish authorities are requesting extradition on the grounds that the eight officers were involved in the foiled coup and participated in a plot to assassinate the President. The Greek government has signaled its intention to be accommodating, though it has to be said that it did so in pretty vague terms, at least publicly. Although the government has stated that it will naturally allow the justice system to decide, there have been numerous statements by officials, including the government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili, the Deputy Defense Minister Dimitris Vitsas, the Minister of Justice Stavros Kontonis, and the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras himself, that describe the officers as “putschists”. The Turkish request for extradition will be examined in three hearings at Arios Pagos, the Greek Supreme Court, on January 10th, 11th and 13th.

The Olympic Village police station, where the eight Turkish officers are being held.

The Turkish officers are standing right behind a door that opens to a corridor. They wait while the guard locks us in, and then we greet each other, one man at a time. We go inside one of the cells, to the right. There are four camp beds. The officers have laid out a chair for me, a plastic stool to use as a table, an ashtray, instant coffee and water.

I ask them how they are being treated. They have been locked up in here for six months. Police stations do not have yards, and people held in them are meant to stay there only for brief periods, so there is no provision to ever go outside. Still, the Turkish officers have no complaints. The Police have treated them decently, they tell me, with kindness even.

Six months in a police station holding cell is tough, I say, but it kind of beats the alternative. There is some laughter. Then one of them says: “My wife cried a lot today.”

They ask me to make a deal with them: they will all talk to me, but when I write the piece, I will attribute what they say to everyone, instead of quoting them as individuals by name. They say that would perhaps be safer for their families. I agree.

They are young. Low ranking officers, helicopter pilots and technicians, army aviation search and rescue. Their main job is to evacuate the injured. They have often operated under NATO command, in Afghanistan, in Kosovo and other areas.

In the last few days, I say, the Turkish media are reporting that new evidence about their case has been discovered.

“What new evidence?” they say. “They mean the phone calls we made to our superior officers? But these are known already, we admitted to all of it from the very beginning. There is no new evidence. We are telling the truth.”

The facts bear them out. “New evidence” appears all the time in the Turkish media, and the reports are often faithfully reproduced in the Greek media. The issue in question, that the eight officers made repeated calls to their superiors, who are now accused as coup participants, has appeared in both. But the timing is suspicious, as the date of the extradition hearings approaches. This “evidence” is not new. It has been part of the Turkish extradition request, included in the case file, from the beginning.

“We are innocent,” they tell me. “We know that the court we are going to now is not to judge our guilt or innocence, but only if we are to be returned to Turkey. But we want you to know that we have come here as innocent people. We do not object to being judged fairly. That is why we have come to Greece. We believe that people will judge us fairly here.”

They have a point. Almost nobody has really afforded these guys the presumption of innocence. The Greek government has pretty much said they are guilty. Of course, the question now is extradition, not culpability. But it must be noted that for them, the substance of the case is not a secondary issue.

I say that I understand they are probably sick of telling the same story over and over, but I would like to hear about the night of the coup in their own words.

“No, no,” they say. “No problem. It is better for our story to be told, then people might understand that a lot of what goes around is wrong.”

“I was at home,” one of them says. “I was having dinner with my family. I was called to base. This is very usual, especially in Istanbul. We have alarms very often, with all the terrorist attacks going on. So I kissed my wife goodbye, my children, I said I would be back in a while. In Samandιra, my base, I was ordered to go evacuate some injured from this area and take them to Topkule base. So we go, a crew of three, two pilots and a technician. We are flying towards the area and as we approach, I see people gathered around. I didn’t think anything of it, sometimes when something happens, people are curious. But as I make my approach to land, some people in the crowd start shooting at us.”

They are all content to let one of them speak on their behalf, just nodding emphatically every now and then. They remind me not to attribute quotes individually by name.

“We landed in Topkule without the injured” he goes on. “There, we came across two other crews from our base. One of the two had come up against the same thing; the crowd had fired on them, too. We tried to contact the duty officer again and again, but we got no reply. They accuse us that we made many phone calls to our superiors, some of which were involved in the coup. What would you have done? We had come under fire, we were in another base, and nobody was telling us what to do. Of course we tried to get in contact with our commanders, time and time again.

“The duty officer never replied. We finally got hold of an officer that outranked him, and he told us not to return to Samandιra, because it was not safe, but to stay right there at Topkule. Of course we did as he said. We are soldiers. If he had told us to go back, we would have gone back. But we were ordered to stay in Topkule.

“We were near the helicopters, smoking and talking. That is when we realized that something big was going on, when we went on the Internet. In the beginning, as you may remember, accounts were very confusing. They were talking about a coup, but nobody knew who carried it out or how. Even today, six months later, they still haven’t found out who in the military chain of command organised this coup.

“Despite what we were seeing on the Internet, the Topkule base was calm. Some soldiers on duty were about and we asked them where everybody else was. They said they were sleeping. There are a lot of tanks in this base, so we asked how many had gone out. Just one, they said.

“We stayed there, by the helicopters, talking. And we were trying to contact our commanders to find out what was going on. Again, no reply.

“Suddenly, we saw a crowd approaching the gate of the base. The gate was visible from the first helicopter. There were policemen and civilians together. They were armed – the civilians too. And then they started shooting. They were shooting at everything, the buildings, the helicopter, us. We started running. One of us came close; there are bullet holes in his jacket.

“We ran to the third helicopter, the one furthest from the gate. The crowd slowed down, probably because the spot where we were was not as visible, and they were being careful, they did not know what they would come up against. We got on the helicopter and took off.

“From the helicopter we tried again to contact our superiors. They did not respond. We decided to head to Samandra. First, though, we landed nearby, because we hoped to raise someone, so that we could find out whether it was safe to return. We landed next to a river, very close to the base, and we went up a hill on foot, in order to get better reception. We tried to get any superior officer on the line for five hours. Nobody ever answered.

“At the same time, we were seeing pictures online of what was happening. They were killing soldiers everywhere. On the Bosporus bridge, in the bases. They were lynching them, throwing them off the bridge, beating them, they cut their ears off, they were hanging them and decapitating them.

Images that were circulated online, after the failed coup in Turkey, July 2016.

“We were thinking about our families. To help your family, you must first of all be alive. As we saw it at that moment, we had two choices: either go back to base and get killed by the crowd, or leave.

“There were nine of us. Three crews. Eight of us had families, one didn’t. Those of us with families decided to leave. One stayed behind. We saw him later in pictures, tortured and bloody.

“Out of the countries where we had enough fuel to go to, we chose Greece. We approached Alexandroupolis and put out a distress call. We have been here since then, requesting political asylum in your country.”

It seems to me, I say, that it was quite lucky for you that you were not ordered to fly, to leave Topkule.

“Yes, of course,” the officers tell me. “Look, we are soldiers. But, more than that, we are rescuers. If they tell you to go pick up someone wounded, then you will fly, no matter what has happened. But they never told us anything. Now they tell us we wanted to commit a coup. How would we do this? Unarmed? We didn’t even have our pistols. The helicopter was without its gun. It was a regular rescue mission. There is security camera footage that shows us getting on the helicopter. We do not have any gear on, no vests, no guns, we have nothing.”

They tell me that they feel ashamed that their country is lying in this way about them. They say that they left so they might have the chance, in the future, to take care of their families.

“We are people that think in a western, contemporary kind of way,” they tell me. “We made sure our children get a western education. We want to live in a democracy.”

In Turkey, I say, it was the army that in the past has supported a western orientation.

“Yes,” they say. “But you cannot build a democracy with coups d’état.”

I ask them: What are you expecting from Greece?

“To judge us fairly,” they say. “We did not come here to create a political problem. We came here because we had no choice. We are not criminals. We are innocent. We are military officers seeking asylum in a European democracy.”

Back at the door, one of them shouts in Greek: “Astynome!” (“Policeman!”) The door is unlocked. I greet them one by one, again, and I thank them for talking to me. Then I say: And what if the extradition request is denied? What if they grant you asylum? What then?

“Then? Then we start over.”

Good luck, I tell them.

I come out of the Police Station, to the emptiness of the Olympic Village. It has gone cloudy now, and a bit cold.

Good luck, I say again.


UPDATE 26.1.2017: The Greek Supreme Court has reached an irreversible decision to deny the extradition request by the Turkish authorities. The eight officers remain under guard in the Olympic Village police station, as the evaluation process for their asylum applications is ongoing.

This interview was adapted from the Greek version published in Unfollow magazine.

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