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Turkish 'suspects' trapped abroad with little hope of return

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused former high-ranking Turkish nationals of conspiring against the government, leaving them in limbo abroad. Meanwhile, Turkey's key NATO role is complicating Europe's response.

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Turkish diplomats fear for their lives

They expected to be the ones leading a western-oriented progressive Turkey: well-educated, multilingual with plenty of international experience, working top jobs at NATO posts around the world.

Instead, hundreds of Turkish military officers and government employees living abroad are now fugitives, hiding in the shadows, afraid of a government they no longer understand or trust.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to expand the lists of individuals he accuses of involvement in the failed July coup. The accused are targeted for prosecution, which often includes instant arrest.

Stuck in Europe

Deutsche Welle spoke with several people now stuck in Europe who must disguise their identities for their personal safety. Among them is a former Turkish government employee married to a NATO officer, both of whom have turned up on lists as "suspects" accused of taking part in the overthrow attempt and other anti-government activities. Yet the formal charges have been kept secret, even from them.

"Of course it was shocking," she recalled. "I got angry. At first we wanted to go back to Turkey -- I wanted to defend myself! But there is no case to defend myself against."

Türkei Präsident Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters/B. McDermid)

Erdogan wants accused 'suspects' to return to Turkey

"We were expecting to build a new Turkey but now there's no chance to do that," her friend, another "suspect," said sadly. "I never imagined that could happen to us. We've even told our children not to speak Turkish in public anymore."

These two individuals have changed their homes, their neighborhoods, their kids' schools, all in an effort to feel safe and survive financially. The government cut off their salaries and benefits months ago along with the demand that they return home with their families to "face justice" alongside the tens of thousands of military personnel, teachers and civil servants who have been sacked in Turkey .

No trust in the Turkish legal system

Another former diplomat in limbo is a high-ranking military officer. When asked directly whether he had anything to do with the coup, he said he did not. The officer believes a witch hunt is taking place in Turkey to remove well-educated, liberal-minded people from public and political life.

"I condemned the coup," he said. "I'm not afraid to be legally pursued or even tried. If there could be a credible legal system in Turkey, I would never hesitate to go back to my country. But unfortunately that's not the case.”

Türkei Polizei verhaftet Unterstützer der pro kurdischen Halkların Demokratik Partisi Partei (Getty Images)

Erdogan ordered massive arrests after the failed coup

Reports of horrific treatment inside Turkish prisons, including testimony made to the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture, give the accused living abroad no faith that returning home would sort things out. Amnesty International's Turkey officer Andrew Gardner confirmed their fears.

"There are photographs from inside police detention," Gardner said. "But most importantly for us, there was testimony from lawyers who actually met with people in detention and doctors as well. Unfortunately they gave a very disturbing picture of ill treatment and torture inside police detention in Turkey and unfortunately that's continuing today."

Erdogan continues to release new lists of people he says were involved in the coup or other terrorist plots, promising to hunt down and bring back those who don't return willingly. Most of the people DW met have requested asylum in their countries of residence, which Erdogan has threatened NATO governments not to grant.

Türkei Wachmann vor dem Gefängnis in Erdine wo Selahattin Demirtas HDP Vorsitzender sitzt (Getty Images/AFP/Y. Akgul)

Reports have detailed human rights abuses in Turkish prisons

Turkey - a 'buffer' for Europe

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg defended Turkey's utility as a partner and "buffer" against Islamic State and the violence in Syria and Iraq when asked in November about these cases and the importance of human rights in NATO

"Turkey is also important for the migrant and the refugee crisis and a buffer for the rest of Europe," he said at a public event. "I think it is very important that the rest of Europe understands the important role Turkey's playing in managing the migrant and refugee crisis."

Erdogan has also threatened on various occasions to quit the EU-Turkey arrangement that has contributed to a reduction in migrants reaching Europe. But Roland Freudenstein, deputy director of Brussels' Martens Center for European Studies, says Europe should stand up to Erdogan.

"He cannot expect democracies with the rule of law to deliver these people to Turkey in this situation," Freudenstein said. "I think we should play hardball on this one. We must make it clear that we're not going to betray the basic principles on which our liberal democracies are founded for a refugee deal. If that is the trade-off, then too bad."

The women say they are afraid their asylum requests will be rejected in the power play between Ankara and its allies. But if that happens, they they'll go somewhere else and try again. "It's a big world with a lot of countries," one of them sighed. "There must be one that will take us."

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