Former Turkish Military Officer Speaks Out After Being Imprisoned By His Own Government

Aug 14, 2018
Originally published on August 14, 2018 7:15 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're about to hear from a man who was jailed for 16 months in Turkey, a Turkish military officer. He was caught up in the mass arrest of thousands of people after the attempted military coup two years ago. At the time, he was assigned to NATO. Teri Schultz has the story from Belgium where she met the officer. He fled Turkey and is now telling his story.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Former Turkish naval officer Cafer Topkaya is at his home in Brussels now near NATO headquarters. He was a bureaucrat there in 2016 working in standardization. He tells me his ordeal began three months after the failed coup attempt in Turkey. That's when he was summoned to an unusual urgent meeting in Ankara. Colleagues warned him military officers were being targeted in post-coup purges, but the lieutenant commander was confident he'd be back within a couple days. And his wife agreed.

CAFER TOPKAYA: She said, you can go. You're - nothing bad will happen to you.

SCHULTZ: Topkaya kissed her goodbye and got on the plane. That was the last time they'd see each other for almost a year and a half. It would be days before anyone knew what had happened to him. In Ankara, Topkaya arrived for the so-called urgent meeting with a customary box of chocolates for his commander and realized immediately something was wrong.

TOPKAYA: When I entered his office at the Turkish General Staff and gave the chocolate, he felt guilty. I could see it in his eyes. I understood the trap was ready. Everything was ready.

SCHULTZ: Dragged away roughly by police, Topkaya was shocked to be thrown in the repurposed gymnasium-turned-detention facility he'd seen in leaked photos. True to those images, he says, there were hundreds of high-ranking military officials held on the floor, many bruised and battered, the place littered with bloodied bandages no one bothered to hide. Though he received very little food, Topkaya says he was not physically abused. But there's one colonel whose daily interrogations he can't forget.

TOPKAYA: And the prosecutor was also bringing the colonel's wife. And he was threatening him. Hey, this is your wife. I will arrest her if you don't admit your allegations. And I know you have two little girls. They'll be left alone. Every day he was coming from the interrogation room shaking and crying.

SCHULTZ: Still, Topkaya believed he would quickly be freed. But instead, at his first hearing, his NATO status became a liability.

TOPKAYA: The allegations were like, you are working at NATO, aren't you? I said, yes, and I was appointed by top general. And what's wrong with that? OK, you are pro-NATO. You know, that's a crime now in Turkey.

SCHULTZ: Western-oriented officers were now suspect. Topkaya was charged with being part of what the Turkish government branded a terrorist group, supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Turkish cleric blamed for instigating the coup. He was also accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Twitter. Topkaya denied all of it, explaining he had no affiliations nor a Twitter account. Still, he was locked away.

MESKURE: (Speaking Turkish).

SCHULTZ: He shows me letters from his family that he saved from those days. His wife Meskure and their three kids had become refugees in Belgium, struggling without income. But they sent upbeat notes to boost his spirits. She reads one now while he interprets.

MESKURE: (Speaking Turkish).

TOPKAYA: She says, my dear husband, how are you? I pray God that you are fine.

MESKURE: (Speaking Turkish).

TOPKAYA: If you are wondering about us, we are fine. Don't worry.

MESKURE: (Speaking Turkish).

TOPKAYA: School has started, and...

SCHULTZ: Finally, after more than 16 months in jail, Topkaya was released to await trial, ordered to check in with police once a week. But he decided to escape, sneaking across the border to Greece in late February.

TOPKAYA: It was like escaping from enemy territory.

SCHULTZ: Within several days, he'd made it back to his family in Brussels. At first he stayed under the radar, wondering if the Turkish government was coming after him, watching it go after others.

TOPKAYA: Bad guys have taken control of the government, the country. And someone should do something to stop them.

SCHULTZ: Topkaya realized he would have to be the someone doing something. So finally he did create a Twitter account where he's telling his story. Several NPR requests for comment about Topkaya from Turkey's diplomatic missions in Brussels have gone unanswered. The government-controlled Turkish press, however, has called his tweets treasonous. Topkaya knows Turkish intelligence agents may still be after him. But he's now received refugee status in Belgium, which offers some reassurance. He says he and his wife discussed the risks of going public and decided it's the right thing to do no matter what.

TOPKAYA: I have to tell things even if it costs me my life because there are some mistakes you can't correct. If I don't talk now, it will be a big mistake that I will regret for the rest of my life. Instead of living with the regret, dying with the feeling that I have done my duty is better.

SCHULTZ: He insists it's not him who's brave but his wife. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.