More than a score of Turkish military officers posted to a NATO command in Norfolk, Virginia, are requesting asylum in the United States, out of fear of reprisals by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, who have been imprisoning officers on charges of alleged complicity in a July 15 coup attempt in Turkey.
Reported by Tom Bowman of NPR on Thursday, the military officers say they will be put in prison if they return home, as Turkey has demanded by way of arrest warrants issued for more than 1,000 Turkish military staff. The officers are also worried that family members back in Turkey could be taken into custody if they speak out by name about their situation.
Turkey suffered an abortive coup on July 15 that killed 240 and injured more than a thousand others. Erdoğan and the government were quick to pin the blame on Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and a movement inspired by him. Gülen has denied all accusations of involvement in the putsch.
Yet all of the officers interviewed by NPR said they had nothing to do with the coup attempt nor had any ties to Gülen, whose extradition from the US has been demanded by Turkey. Erdoğan has even gone so far as to claim that some US military officers supported the failed coup or were at least aware of it, allegations strongly denied by the Obama administration.
Some of the Turkish officers in Virginia believe they are being targeted because of their competence in English and time spent serving with Americans or NATO nations, all of whom are now coming under the wrath of the Erdoğan government. The officers produced 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,” according to NPR.
The asylum requests, similar to the demand for Gülen’s extradition, present a problem for relations between Ankara and Washington as the US wants to retain Turkey’s support for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria in which American use İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to launch attacks.
No official comment on asylum can be made by US immigration officials due to privacy concerns, but such procedures can take as long as two years. However, NPR reports that the officers are getting by for the moment, with the help of colleagues and the downsizing of their lifestyle.
One officer told NPR that despite all this, they are actually 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.”