“I am a navy officer who has been stabbed in the back by his brothers in arms,” reads a pinned tweet by Turkish former Lt. Cmdr. Cafer Topkaya.
“Trapped, purged, and imprisoned by his fellow countrymen. Once a NATO staff officer, now an exile. I guess it’s time to tell my story!”
It is the story of an unassuming Turkish military officer, who was working at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, when he was swept up in a large-scale campaign of arrests in Turkey. Detained for almost a year and a half, Topkaya escaped in February while on conditional release awaiting trial.
Now Topkaya recounts his story to NPR back in his living room in Brussels, near NATO headquarters. He’s speaking out about the treatment of detainees by the Turkish government at a time when it continues its massive crackdown, sweeping up thousands suspected of links to outlawed groups including followers of a U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric, which has fueled tensions with the United States.
It was July 2016, and Topkaya was a year into his posting in Belgium as a NATO standardization expert, appointed by Turkey. Back home, factions within Turkey’s military attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They bombed parliament. Almost 290 people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes in several Turkish cities. Erdogan narrowly escaped capture and the coup was thwarted. Topkaya says he watched it unfold on television.
But the Turkish government accused military personnel like Topkaya — Western-oriented, NATO-trained — of instigating the operation under instruction from Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania. Gulen denies any involvement.
The purged officers interviewed by NPR estimate that about 900 Turkish military personnel were posted abroad at the time of the coup and three-quarters of them have been dismissed. Most were ordered back to Turkey, where many of those who obeyed were immediately jailed. Others have sought asylum where they were stationed, including in the United States.
Three months after the coup, Topkaya received instructions to attend an “urgent meeting” in Ankara.
His NATO colleagues urged him not to go, but Topkaya dismissed their concerns. He felt he should follow the order, out of duty and the confidence that his clean military record, since enlisting at age 15, would shield him from the treatment meted out to others.
So did his wife Meskure. “She said you can go and you are innocent,” he recalled. “Nothing bad will happen to you.”
Topkaya kissed his wife goodbye and got on a plane. It would be days before anyone knew what happened to him next.
After arriving in Ankara, there was an uneventful overnight at the officers’ club. But then he got to the “urgent meeting” at general staff headquarters. He says he got a bad feeling the moment he presented his commander with a customary box of chocolates. “He felt guilty. I could see it in his eyes,” Topkaya remembers. “I understood that the trap was ready, everything was ready.”
When Topkaya tried to leave the building, suddenly his pass didn’t work. Then police arrived and hauled him off. He soon found himself lying on the floor of a repurposed gymnasium with hundreds of other military officials, many of them battered and bruised, and with bloodied bandages lying all over. He’d seen this place and the condition of its inhabitants in leaked photos, but it was shocking to be there.
After 12 days with little food, he remembers barely being able to stand or think clearly. Topkaya was brought before a prosecutor he presumed would release him once she knew his status as a lifelong officer and a NATO diplomat. Instead, what he thought were respected achievements were now liabilities.
“The allegations were like, ‘You are working at NATO aren’t you?'” Topkaya remembers, incredulously. “I say, ‘Yes — what’s wrong with that?'”
Prosecutors accused him of supporting a “terrorist organization” — which is what Turkey’s government labels alleged or real followers of Gulen — and of insulting Erdogan on Twitter.
Topkaya explained to authorities he had no political or religious ties, and wasn’t even on Twitter.
Nevertheless, he was packed off to Sincan prison, where he says he avoided physical abuse himself but saw cellmates returning from interrogation bearing signs of maltreatment. They spoke of torture, such as being strapped to electric chairs or waterboarded, he says. In the gym, he saw one colonel repeatedly taken away to interrogations where the colonel’s wife was also brought in and threatened with imprisonment, as authorities emphasized that would mean their two small daughters would be left unattended.
Back in Brussels, Topkaya’s family also suffered. With his arrest, their passports were canceled and his salary — the family’s only source of income — was cut off. They went overnight from being a well-off diplomatic family to applying for refugee status. His three young children tried to smile for photos and drew him pictures, while Meskure wrote her husband letters about their daily lives, trying to keep his spirits up. She also wrote to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and each allied government asking for help bringing her husband back. No one offered her more than sympathy, which although she says she appreciated, didn’t help with pressure on Ankara. Most recipients didn’t respond at all.
NPR learned of Topkaya’s case shortly after his detention in Ankara and spoke with his wife and other purged colleagues at the time.
After more than 16 months in detention, Topkaya was released conditionally to family members in Ankara with orders to check in with police every week.
Going through old documents, he found a nondiplomatic passport that military police missed while scouring his parents’ and in-laws’ houses. He decided not to chance being arrested again. In late February, he took the passport and ran for the Greek border. “It was like escaping from enemy territory,” he says.
It took him a few days to get back to Belgium. He doesn’t want to give exact details of how he traveled for fear of putting up obstacles for future escapees.
Back in the arms of his overjoyed family, Topkaya first stayed under the radar, wondering if the Turkish government would show up at his door. Agents have reportedly arrested dozens of Turkish nationals from multiple countries.
Some fellow purged Turkish NATO officers, in hiding in Belgium and other countries, are worried for his safety. “Erdogan’s long arm is everywhere,” one told NPR in explanation for why he conceals his identity. “They try to find where we live, report on what we do, and if they get orders, they carry them out.”
But for Topkaya, the continuing purges and harsh treatment he says he saw while in detention gave him no choice. Amnesty International says statistics made available by the Turkish government suggest more than 150,000 people have been detained during the two-year state of emergency that ended in July.
“Reports of people being subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, especially in police custody, significantly increased following the announcement of the state of emergency, especially in the weeks following the July 2016 coup attempt,” Amnesty said in a report last month. It added that authorities have denied such allegations without thoroughly investigating them.
“Bad guys have taken control of the government, the country,” Topkaya concurs, “and someone should do something to stop them.” Topkaya decided he had become at least one of those “someones.”
Last month, he created two Twitter accounts under his real name — one in Turkish, one in English — where he’s telling his story, post by post, in meticulous detail. He includes supporting documents when possible.
Numerous requests for comment about Topkaya to Turkey’s diplomatic missions in Brussels have gone unanswered. The government-controlled Turkish press, however, has branded his tweets as treasonous.
Topkaya says he and his wife are aware of the risks and both believe it’s the right thing to do — no matter what.
“I have to tell things even if it costs me my life,” Topkaya says, “because there are some mistakes you can’t correct. And if I don’t talk now, it will be a big mistake that I will regret for the rest of my life. And instead of living with that regret, dying with the feeling that I have done my duty is better.”
It’s not the way he expected to be serving his country, Topkaya says sadly. Neither is today’s Turkey the country he says he knew when he signed up to defend it for what he expected would be a lifetime.