UPDATED: Scores of Turkish military officers and diplomats who’ve been serving at embassies and with NATO in Europe have defected and sought political asylum, including several now in Norway. Newspaper VG reported Thursday night that they all fear being imprisoned and even tortured or killed if they return home to Turkey. Turkey’s embassy in Oslo dismissed their fears on Friday, and claims they now must face the consequences of their refusal to obey orders.
VG reported Friday morning that 89 Turkish citizens applied for asylum in Norway last year, 74 of them after the failed military coup in Turkey that occurred in July. Among those seeking asylum are military officers, diplomats and their families who feel they’re now under suspicion of having been involved with the coup. Several of the officers and diplomats had served in Norway until last fall, according to VG, when they refused to follow orders to return to Turkey for “conversations” with military leaders following the military coup attempt. They then sought political asylum with Norwegian authorities.
Deny coup involvement
The diplomats and officers flatly deny they had anything to do with the failed coup. It has led to the arrests and imprisonment of more than 100,000 people in what’s been likened to a purge of potential political opponents carried out by Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among those under arrest and believed to face torture as well are lawyers, judges, professors, journalists, police and military officers and other public sector workers.
One of the men who’s now seeking asylum in Norway told VG that it was “impossible to return now” to Turkey. He said he had been dismissed by the Turkish military and his passport was cancelled. “If I travel back, I will immediately be arrested and I risk torture and being forced to make false statements,” he told VG. “In Turkish prisons, people die for unknown reasons.”
Another officer now seeking exile in Norway said a colleague chose to travel home from Norway in an effort to clear his name of any charges. “He was arrested at passport control at the airport when he arrived in Turkey, and is still sitting in prison,” the officer told VG.
‘Have nothing to fear’
The acting chief of mission at the Turkish Embassy in Oslo, Ülkü Kocaefe, told VG Friday morning that the officers’ fears are not rooted in reality. “The Turkish state has many judicial mechanisms that protect people’s rights,” claimed Kocaefe. She said that 12,600 civil servants who were suspended after the coup attempt are now back at work in the jobs they held.
“If you are a military officer abroad and are called back to your country, you must take the consequences if you refuse to travel home,” Kocaefe told VG. She said the decisions made by those who remained in Norway were “sad,” noting that “if you refuse to travel to Turkey, it can perhaps mean that it has something to do with the charges.” Norway, she claimed, must understand that the steps Turkish authorities are now taking are a result of extremely difficult times for the country, given the coup attempt and many terrorist attacks.
Kocaefe, second in command at the embassy in Oslo, serves as its chargé d’affaires. Turkey’s ambassador to Norway, Esat Safak Göktürk, was said to be in Turkey for a meeting. He has held his post in Oslo since 2014. Kocaefe also told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “if the officers and diplomats have not done anything wrong, they have nothing to fear.”
According to VG, diplomats and officers seeking asylum are now living at secret addresses around Norway. They confirmed they have registered themselves with both the Norwegian police and state immigration agency UDI, and will seek protection against deportation or extradition from Norway.
Their cases, however, are highly politically sensitive for Norway. Both Norway and Turkey are NATO allies and the Norwegian government has supported Erdogan after the coup attempt, despite Norwegian concerns over his hard-handed measures and the erosion of human rights and democracy in Turkey. Erdogan has been widely accused of continually trying to expand his powers, and using the coup as an excuse to stifle political opposition.
A spokesman for Norway’s justice ministry refused to either confirm or deny that any Turkish diplomats or officers have sought asylum, or say anything about any basis for asylum applications. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Friday morning that in a worst case scenario, Erdogan and his Turkish government may accuse the Norwegian government of harbouring fugitives or supporting terrorism. The situation is also difficult for NATO, which fights for freedom and democracy but needs Turkey’s cooperation because of its strategic location for military bases and its abiity to hold back another influx of refugees from the Middle East.
Defections elsewhere, too
NATO, however, has confirmed that Turkish officers at NATO’s own headquarters in Brussels also have been ordered home to Turkey, as well from other NATO operations in Europe. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, is also well aware that Turkish officers working at NATO have been dismissed and arrested, and some have sought asylum in other NATO member countries. Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK and the US are among countries dealing with asylum applications from Turkish military officers.
Stoltenberg himself has stressed that NATO is not involved in the cases: “It is up to each individual member country (Belgium or others) to decide on the question of protection” for those arrested, he told VG.
Stoltenberg has also been concerned, however, over Turkey’s crackdowns on political opposition and stressed to Turkish officials that NATO expects legal proceedings against suspected coup participants to be in line with international conventions that Turkey has signed. A NATO spokesman told VG that “Secretary General Stoltenberg has made it clear to Turkish authorities that they have a right to prosecute people who were behind the attempted coup, but he also made it clear that must happen within the framework of the rule of law.”
Stoltenberg has, meanwhile, largely left human rights concerns up to his former Norwegian political colleague Thorbjørn Jagland to enforce. Jagland is another former Norwegian prime minister who now heads the Council of Europe.
The officers dismissed from service in Norway, and presumably elsewhere, lost their source of income from Turkey and have also been told that all their property and bank accounts in Turkey have been confiscated by the Turkish state. One of the new laws pushed through by Erdogan reportedly gives the state power to also cancel officers’ pensions and Turkish citizenship if they don’t travel home.
Asked why Turkish authorities wanted to question them after the coup, one told VG that it’s likely because they were considered “western-oriented” and enthusiastic supporters of tighter cooperation with Turkey’s allies in NATO. Some said they were on summer holiday when the coup occurred, and were as surprised as anyone.
“Turkey wants to make me stateless,” one of the men told VG. “I thought I had a good military career, but now I’m scrounging for small jobs at a day care center or as an athletics coach to be able to support my family.” All family members in Norway also have had their passports cancelled.