Listen Now

'Maybe I'm Not As Safe As Before': Turkish Admiral Seeking Asylum In U.S. Speaks Out

Jul 23, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 6:03 am

Turkish Rear Admiral Mustafa Ugurlu, a top officer at a NATO training command in Norfolk, Va., was just wrapping up a meeting when an aide rushed up to him.

"There is something happening in Turkey," he said on that July day in 2016.

A major bridge was closed to traffic in Istanbul and Turkish Armed forces were staging a coup. Tanks were in the streets. Helicopters and war planes streaked across the sky.

Ugurlu remembers trying to call senior officers in Turkey. He couldn't get through.

The admiral walked back to his office. "A military coup?" he said to himself. "During primetime on a Friday evening, by closing the most heavily trafficked bridge in Istanbul? This was shockingly poor strategy." He brushed aside the story.

Two weeks later, Ugurlu would himself be charged with taking part in the coup, with the help of the U.S. and NATO. His picture appeared in the Turkish press. The admiral was dismissed from his job and ordered home.

Instead, he decided to seek asylum in the United States, with some two dozen fellow Turkish officers who worked at the NATO training command. They all spoke with NPR a few months after the failed coup, denied they were involved, insisted their names not be used and their voices disguised on the radio, fearing retribution.

Now, as the most senior officer, Ugurlu has now decided to speak openly. Why?

"Nothing has changed" in Turkey, he tells NPR, noting that the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more and more repressive. "And I want something to be changed because Turkey, my country home, that is in a bad condition and I decided to speak my own voice."

'New democracy and national unity day'

The admiral and the other officers in the Norfolk area watched as thousands of their colleagues were arrested, including some of his close friends.

"Almost all of my classmates are in jail, for life in prison without parole," he says. "And they were tortured during the first days after the coup attempt. And they were just on holiday or somewhere just like me. They were not guilty, I believe."

The Turkish embassy said in a statement to NPR that there is still an arrest warrant for the admiral, and questioned why he won't return home.

"Why would a high ranking military general seek asylum and refuse to go back to Turkey, if he were not affiliated with the cult that perpetrated the coup attempt?"

The Embassy also alleged "many high-level fugitives" linked to the coup are in the U. S.

Ugurlu, 54, rose to two-star rank in the Turkish Navy, commanding warships, taking part in the campaign in the Balkans, and working at a NATO command in Italy.

American military officers privately say that a number of officers arrested with whom they worked closely were clearly not culpable in the coup, but were suspect because they either worked for NATO or spent time in the US.

The arrests continue in Turkey, four years after the failed coup. Some 80,000 military officers, judges, lawyers, teachers and journalists are facing trial. Some 130,000 have lost their jobs.

And with the fourth anniversary of the alleged coup, July 15 is now "New Democracy and National Unity Day."

For his part, President Erdogan marked the fourth anniversary by once again insisting that the coup was instigated by the followers of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime Erdogan ally who is now living in Pennsylvania. Gulen strongly denies any involvement.

They tried to "shackle this freedom-loving nation, thank God they could not succeed," Ergodan said.

Turkish Admiral Mustafa Ugurlu who's seeking asylum is the U.S., is fearful the Turkish military will track him down.
Courtesy of Admiral Mustafa Ugurlu

Urgurlu and some of his fellow officers are convinced that it was Erdogan himself who staged the coup in an effort to expand power and eliminate his critics.

"It was a false flag operation," Ugurlu says. It was a perfect plan initiated, controlled and executed by the regime. But they made many mistakes and left clear evidence and witnesses behind them."

The admiral insists if the Turkish military "wanted to make a real coup, it will be a very successful one."

Turkey analysts, however, doubt that Erdogan was behind the failed coup.

"I wouldn't say it's entirely implausible, says Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "I've never seen proof to that end."

Still, Ellehuus and others say that Erdogan has clearly benefited from the coup — which he termed "a gift from God" — allowing him to swiftly eliminate any criticism of his government.

Ugurlu says he tries not to reach out to any of his friends in Turkey.

"We are not trying to communicate with them because we believe they are being tapped and they are being following and their families are still under extreme pressure," he says. "They are not allowed to leave the country."

Still, some military officers and others continue to flee.

Last year, NPR interviewed a Turkish naval officer who was slipped across the border into Greece and made his way to California, where his wife and two young children followed later.

Exchanging cultural values

Ugurlu and the other officers in the Norfolk area are still awaiting on their asylum, which he admits was difficult to request.

"It was very painful. I love my homeland," he says. "I have served 30 years with loyalty to my lovely country, but I couldn't turn back."

Ugurlu, along with his wife and two adult children, says he and his fellow Turkish officers have been embraced by the Norfolk community, including invitations to Thanksgiving dinners.

"Each Turkish family has an American sister family," he says. "We are exchanging cultural values."

The man who once commanded warships and worked in the upper reaches of NATO, says he's now helping his wife manage a local dress shop. "She is my boss now," he says, adding that his wife also runs a charitable organization trying to raise awareness about what's happening in Turkey.

The admiral still worries about whether the Turkish state will try to track him down. He says Turkish agents have kidnapped Turkish officers who fled to other countries.

"Maybe I'm not as safe as before," he says.

But his family is making the best of it in the United States, he says. His daughter is set to marry an American in September, and his son is studying at a local university.

And the other Turkish officers who remain are also putting down roots. One is an airline pilot, another is a manager for Amazon, and still another is teaching at a nearby college.

"We are happy," Ugurlu says. "We are in one of the best countries in the world for us. But we always think about our friends there. Torture is still going on. Their families are in a difficult condition and they are suffering."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Mustafa Ugurlu never planned to begin a new life in Virginia. He was a rear admiral in Turkey's military, and he and other officers were on a NATO deployment in Virginia in 2016 when chaos erupted at home. It was the failed coup attempt against Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ugurlu and his colleagues were implicated, and they sought asylum here in the U.S.

When we spoke to him and several colleagues last time, we masked their voices to protect them. Now he is speaking on the record with an accusation that Erdogan staged the coup so he could tighten his grip on power. If the coup were real, he says, Erdogan would be gone.

MUSTAFA UGURLU: More than 60% of the admirals and generals were arrested. And if they wanted to make a real coup, it will be very successful one.

GREENE: Many analysts say this was an attempted coup. Nevertheless, afterwards, Erdogan's government rounded up tens of thousands of people - military officers, academics, journalists. Admiral Ugurlu's daughter fled on one of the last planes out after the coup, and she's been with her dad here.

UGURLU: She wanted very much to become a psychologist. But anyway, she found another way - now managed her life - very successful businesswoman and about to marry an American gentleman.

GREENE: She met him in Virginia Beach.

UGURLU: Yes. She's a kind of social butterfly.

GREENE: (Laughter).

Now, the Turkish embassy gave NPR a statement stressing that the coup killed 251 people, and they accused Ugurlu of using false claims to win asylum. This didn't surprise the admiral. He said the Turkish government labels any critical voices terrorists. Ugurlu is just hoping his asylum in the U.S. is approved.

What if the United States denies your request? What would you do then?

UGURLU: I think there's no option for me. I will return back and - to my country, and my destiny will be to my classmates' destiny, I guess.

GREENE: You think you would end up in jail.

UGURLU: Exactly. They will pick up me at the airport, and they will torture me, I am 100% sure, because almost all of my classmates are in jail, in life in prison without no parole. And they were tortured during the first days after the coup attempt. And they were just in holiday or somewhere else. They were like me. They were not guilty, I believe.

GREENE: Well, I know, you know, you were in the Turkish military for 30 years, and you are now describing this military coup, as it's been called, and suggesting that this was maybe all a farce - that it was made up by Erdogan and his government. What makes you believe that?

UGURLU: After this corruption scandal, he started to lose power. And I believe July 15 wasn't a coincidence. It was an important milestone in our last journey towards a dictatorship, and now dragging Turkey into dark waters.

GREENE: Well, you say dark waters. I mean, this is a country that is a very important NATO ally. I mean, if - should the United States and other NATO countries consider coming out and saying that Turkey is no longer a reliable ally and consider - I mean, I know there's no official way to do this easily or quickly, but perhaps have NATO without Turkey in it?

UGURLU: I strongly believe Turkey need NATO and NATO need Turkey. If an investigation can be done for the coup, it may be a key point. Then Erdogan will have no credibility in his own country. I just want what is reality to surface.

GREENE: Are you still in touch with some of your former military colleagues who are in Turkey?

UGURLU: We are trying not to communicate with them because we believe they are being tapped, and they are being followed. And their families are still under extreme pressure. They are not allowed to leave the country, too. So they are finding other ways to run away from the regime. But many women and children drowned and died while they were running out of their homeland. People are dying while they are escaping from their country. So we are trying not to communicate much with them because we don't want to make their situation worse.

GREENE: I want to ask you about your community there in Virginia Beach. How many other, you know, former officers are there with you waiting for asylum?

UGURLU: As you know, we have been accepted by the American community with a great kindness and respect in Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads. We have started a sistership (ph) program with one of the respectful local community here. Each Turkish family has an American sister family. We are exchanging cultural values. And we learn from them honestly, you know? Also, they taught us, how can we help others, you know? It is - they're also working in other - their own charitable organization, and they helped us to create our owns (ph).

GREENE: Well, and I know you lost your salary from the military, obviously. So what have you been doing for work?

UGURLU: We started to run a shop with my wife. Actually, she is running the shop, and I am helping her.

GREENE: What kind of shop is it?

UGURLU: It's a kind of woman apparel.

GREENE: Like a dress shop.

UGURLU: Yes.

GREENE: And she runs it, and you give her some help.

UGURLU: Yes. She is my boss now.

GREENE: (Laughter) Well, that sounds great. I mean, it sounds like you two are finding a new and different life here in the United States together.

UGURLU: Yes. We are happy. But we always think about our friends. Their torture is still going on. They are prisoned (ph) in lifetime. Their families are in difficult condition. And they are suffering from this one. This is what we think, you know?

GREENE: How much do you miss home?

UGURLU: Too much. It's my country, David - now in the wrong hands, but it's my country. And we miss it a lot. We miss our country. We miss our agency. We miss our Black Sea. We miss our friends - everything you can imagine. And I believe I will turn back one day. This is my country.

GREENE: Well, admiral, I hope you get back to your country at some point. And thank you so, so much for taking time to speak with us.

UGURLU: Thank you. Thank you, David.

GREENE: That was Mustafa Ugurlu, a former rear admiral in Turkey's military. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.