Europe

Purged from Turkey's army, officers seek asylum in Belgium

  • FILE - In this Saturday, July 16, 2016 file photo, Turkish soldiers secure Istanbul's Taksim square, as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul. In the wake of last year’s coup in Turkey, scores of military officers are seeking asylum in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe. Three who spoke to AP tell Kafkaesque tales of a life in hiding, charged with crimes against the state. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)

    FILE - In this Saturday, July 16, 2016 file photo, Turkish soldiers secure Istanbul's Taksim square, as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul. In the wake of last year’s coup in Turkey, scores of military officers are seeking asylum in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe. Three who spoke to AP tell Kafkaesque tales of a life in hiding, charged with crimes against the state. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - In this Saturday, July 16, 2016 file photo, Turkish soldiers secure Istanbul's Taksim square, as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul. In the wake of last year’s coup in Turkey, scores of military officers are seeking asylum in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe. Three who spoke to AP tell Kafkaesque tales of a life in hiding, charged with crimes against the state. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)

    FILE - In this Saturday, July 16, 2016 file photo, Turkish soldiers secure Istanbul's Taksim square, as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul. In the wake of last year’s coup in Turkey, scores of military officers are seeking asylum in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe. Three who spoke to AP tell Kafkaesque tales of a life in hiding, charged with crimes against the state. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)  (The Associated Press)

In the days after rogue soldiers tried to take over Turkey last year, the fax machine in the Turkish delegation's offices at NATO headquarters started spitting out lists of names.

The lists from armed forces headquarters in Ankara often arrived on Friday evenings as personnel were packing up for the weekend. At first, each carried 20 or 30 names. But the one that came through more than two months after the July coup attempt made even seasoned Turkish officers in Brussels anxious.

It gave 221 colonels, majors and other mid-ranking officers at NATO facilities around the world three days to get back to Turkey.

"Normally you would be told where you are going on your next assignment, get an allowance to move your family, have some time for your children to leave school," one major who appeared on the Sept. 27 list told The Associated Press. "It didn't make any sense."

The lives of the individuals named were about to be turned upside down. Considered suspects in the coup, dozens of Turkish officers assigned to NATO are refusing orders from the country they spent their adult lives serving and no longer trust. Instead, they are seeking asylum abroad or have gone into hiding, fearing they could be arrested and imprisoned as terrorists if they return.

More than 150,000 people have been taken into custody, fired or forced to retire from Turkey's armed forces, judiciary, education system and other public institutions since the thwarted July 15 coup. Yet few first-person accounts have emerged from those caught up in the unprecedented purge, in part because the crackdown has extended to journalists and news outlets in Turkey.

Three officers, each with more than 20 years' experience in the armed forces and at least a year at NATO, shared their experiences — as well as lists, documents and photographs — with an AP reporter. Assigned to posts in Belgium while the failed power grab played out, they believe they have water-tight alibis.

When the big list came in, men gathered around the fax machine trying to grasp what the order meant, how badly the failed coup had shaken up the armed forces. They compared notes in offices, at the cafeteria, and later in the homes of some 150 Turkish officers whose careers and paychecks were about to end.

"People came together to understand why and what to do. Was it legal? How would it affect our lives? What was next?" the major said. He spoke on condition of confidentiality during a cautiously arranged interview, expressing fear for his safety and the welfare of his family.

Three days after the officers were ordered back to Turkey, another fax arrived. It contained 19 more names and a new order: Return immediately. No explanation. No instructions for the city or military base where they were expected to show up.

"It gave us only a few hours to return. We were told to buy a ticket and come back," the major recalled. "We couldn't work out what was going on, what it meant. But from that letter, we could understand that we had already been purged."

The army long has been the guarantor of secularism in predominantly Muslim Turkey. Past military coups were conducted to remove leaders considered too Islamist and to uphold the republican ideals of modern Turkey.

Over the years, though, a series of trials involving army officers accused of anti-government conspiracies — many based on disputed evidence — has weakened the army's political influence.

The officers being excised, particularly the ones at NATO, are bright, western-educated men — including West Point graduates — whose experience they say was vital to building and running one of the biggest armies in the Western military alliance.

With little help apart from the bond of solidarity the officers have formed, the specter of deportation and arrest seems all too near.

"I have a brilliant military career, and I'm not new to the armed forces," one colonel said, producing a glowing recommendation letter from a non-Turkish superior officer at NATO. "We are good people, we are good officers. We are not terrorists. We are trying to understand why we were targeted."

In a decree handed down on Nov. 22, the officers who spoke to AP, along with many others, were branded as members or contacts of terrorist groups or structures that Turkey's National Security Council accused of "activities against the national security of the state."

At first, they were determined to return and prove their innocence. As a precaution, the major went to a doctor to establish a current health record. The doctor, a man of North African origin warned him: "We have seen this kind of thing before in my country. Don't go back."

It was probably good advice. Amnesty International has reported cases of prisoners being severely mistreated since the coup attempt, subjected to beatings and sometimes even sexual assault. Food, water, legal counsel and medical treatment are routinely denied.

"Some of the worst reported physical abuse was linked to military personnel and senior military personnel," Amnesty researcher Andrew Gardner told the AP. "It's fair to assume that they were among the people targeted for the most extreme abuse."

The colonel and his family, along with about 100 other Turkish personnel, have applied for asylum in Belgium. Scores of other officers are seeking asylum in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway.

"I don't want to be a refugee," he said. For now, it is the only guarantee of safety he and his family have, he said.

The Turkish government alleges that the failed military power grab was plotted and directed from the United States by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric and former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan says vast numbers of Gulen's followers have infiltrated the army and much of Turkish society like a virus.

On that summer night, rebel officers launched simultaneous attacks in Ankara and Istanbul, striking at police stations and killing dozens. Fighter jets bombed the Turkish parliament while lawmakers were in session. Top military commanders, including the chief of military staff, were kidnapped.

The hastily arranged coup ended up crushed amid a popular uprising by Turks frightened at the prospect of a military takeover. From southwest Turkey, the vacationing Erdogan used a smartphone to urge supporters into the streets. In the weeks that followed, thousands of people were taken into custody under sweeping emergency laws allowing 30 days' detention.

"I was surprised and angry. From the very first moments it looked unreal," the major said. "Generals were beaten and treated like dogs in front of the cameras. Many of our friends and the people we knew of the highest caliber were being arrested."

Defense officials say Gulen supporters who did not participate in the coup can still be threats, given past examples of officers ignoring their commanders to take instructions from high-ranking people in the movement.

The officers in Belgium insist they are not Gulenists; they agree that Gulen supporters have infiltrated Turkish life. They also argue that the government's purge has been arbitrary and ill-conceived.

European intelligence officials were surprised by the speed with which the coup suspect lists were drawn up, according to a report by the EU Intelligence Analysis Center. Turkey is trying to join the European Union, and must bring its laws and human rights practices in line with the bloc's standards.

The Intcen report, which was reviewed by the Times of London newspaper, concluded that the huge wave of arrests that followed the aborted coup "was already previously prepared."

"Erdogan exploited the failed coup and the state of emergency to launch an extensive repressive campaign against the opponents of the (governing Justice and Development Party) establishment," the Times quoted the report as saying.

The purged officers think the plot was exploited by the Turkish authorities. Other Erdogan critics say the president has used the coup as a pretext to seize control of the judiciary and the armed forces, two of the country's most independent institutions.

The officers who haven't requested asylum hang on as exiles, living in virtual hiding and without salaries, scared they are being watched and with no idea when or if they will be able to go home.

The legal limbo is unnerving for the men, who have been refused consular assistance to help fight charges for crimes they say they did not commit. Turkish authorities say the charges must remain a state secret, and the officers have neither seen nor heard the evidence against them. They struggle to find lawyers to represent them.

An official at the Turkish embassy in Brussels declined to say how purged officers would be treated if they came for help or documents, saying only "We don't deal with that kind of thing." A further AP request for information went unanswered.

The accused men speak highly of NATO and have been moved by private gestures of support. One German colleague invited the colonel for Christmas. As he was leaving, he was handed an envelope with money inside.

"I said that I could not accept it," the colonel said. "But his lady hugged me and cried. 'We want to wholeheartedly give you this,' she said."

At NATO, the official position is that this is all a matter for the Turkish government. Only NATO's top general, Curtis Scaparrotti, has spoken publicly of "a degradation on my staff" due to the loss of about 150 "talented, capable people" from Turkey. He said he had no indication they were coup-plotters.

Despite the risks, some former colleagues in Turkey ask why the men haven't come back if they have not committed crimes against the state as they claim. Relatives and friends also wonder why the men don't take a chance and return.

Under pressure, deprived of their work routines and in some cases afraid for families in Turkey, these officers are also wary that Turkey's military attache or the country's the MIT intelligence agency might be tracking them. The strain shows.

"My wife's family are having a hard time understanding why we are not going back. The whole society is divided," a second colonel, visibly more restless and tense than his colleagues, said.

He has chosen not to apply for asylum in Belgium.

"I'm just keeping a low profile," he said. "We are waiting for a change to happen in Turkey because this just isn't sustainable."

The signal this colonel hopes to see may not materialize for a while.

Last month, the Turkish armed forces removed a ban on Islamic-style head coverings, allowing female officers to wear them. In a country where Erdogan and his Islam-rooted party are working to consolidate power, the move represented a symbolic neutering of the army's role as the guardian of secularism.

Meanwhile, with a state of emergency still in place almost eight months after the coup attempt, new lists have trickled off the fax at Turkey's NATO delegation in recent months. More officers have joined the ranks of those seeking international protection.