A Turkish officer on trial in Greece after fleeing last week’s failed coup said on Thursday he did not want to return home owing to “indiscriminate” arrests by Ankara authorities.
“We saw indiscriminate arrests of military personnel and we were afraid,” the man, one of eight officers who fled to Greece, told a court in the northern city of Alexandroupolis.
The eight men are on trial for illegal entry to Greece and face up to five years in jail there, in a case that threatens to strain ties between the two NATO allies. The men, labelled “terrorists” by Ankara, have blocked their deportation by applying for asylum.
“We thought of going to Bulgaria, Romania or Greece – finally we chose Greece,” said the officer who opened Thursday’s trial.
The officers flew to Alexandroupolis by military helicopter on Saturday and were allowed to land after sending a distress signal to authorities. A Turkish detachment arrived after them and returned the Black Hawk helicopter to Turkey.
Greek military units have been placed on “heightened vigilance” amid reports that additional Turkish military personnel could be trying to flee to the Greek islands, a navy spokesman told AFP.
The eight men arrived in handcuffs at the court with their faces hidden.
They claim that they were in the process of transferring wounded men to their unit during the clashes that broke out during the attempted coup on Friday, but came under fire by police.
“We had to land in a field near Istanbul and wait, before deciding to flee,” the suspect said.
The court is expected to deliver a ruling later on Thursday under tight security.
According to one of their lawyers, Ilia Marinaki, the soldiers – two commanders, four captains and two sergeants – fear for their safety and that of their families after the abortive bid to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Whatever the court ruling on Thursday, any action on their fate will likely have to wait until early August when asylum authorities are to decide on their applications.
Turkish authorities insist they will receive fair treatment at home, despite indications that suspects are often subjected to rough treatment amid a huge retaliatory crackdown by Erdogan’s government.
Turkey’s ambassador has warned that failure to return the officers “will not help” ties. “I hope we will manage to swiftly go through the phases of due process and manage to return these terrorist elements so that they will face justice,” Kerim Uras told reporters in Athens on Tuesday.
Historic foes, Greece and Turkey became members of NATO in 1952. Ties have improved dramatically in recent years although there are irritants such as airspace and maritime border disputes.
Greece last year also faulted Turkey for allowing thousands of mainly Syrian refugees and migrants to sail to its shores, before an EU deal stemming the flow came into force in March.