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

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People gather near a Turkish army tank in Istanbul on July 16, after a group within Turkey's military attempted a coup. Since then, more than 100,000 people been detained, fired or suspended from their jobs on suspicion of sympathizing with or aiding the coup attempt.

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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