In his sixth week of detention, Cafer Topkaya stopped counting the days in his prison diary, realizing he wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.
Like many caught up in the crackdown after the failed military coup in Turkey two years ago, the 42-year-old naval officer had believed he could simply prove his innocence in court. But after weeks of sleeping on the floor in his cell, without enough food and with no explanation of the charges he faced, Topkaya said he understood the cards were stacked against him.
“After 39 days I lost my hope,” he told The Associated Press in Brussels, where he rejoined his family this year after he managed to escape Turkey while on a conditional release from prison.
It’s rare for military officers accused of supporting the coup to speak in public. Topkaya said he, too, was afraid to speak out — he doesn’t feel entirely safe even in Belgium — but was inspired by the courage of a young Swedish woman whose recent protest aboard a passenger plane stopped the deportation of an Afghan migrant.
“Then I thought of the people in prison in Turkey. They can’t meet with the press. They can’t even meet with their lawyers. So they have no means to freely tell their stories, the things they endure,” he said.”So I felt a responsibility to talk on behalf of them and to tell their story and my story.”
Topkaya was working as a Turkish officer at NATO in Brussels when news broke of the military uprising against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that killed 250 people in July 2016. Erdogan blamed the attempted coup on Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally living in exile in the United States, and swiftly cracked down on suspected supporters of Gulen’s movement across Turkey.
More than 130,000 people have since been purged from the public service. Over 77,000 have been arrested for alleged links to Gulen’s network or Kurdish separatists, among them lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, military personnel, police and journalists.
Arrests continue, and the courts are swamped.
Topkaya, who says he supports neither Gulen nor Erdogan but the secular principles of modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, said he only fully learned about the allegations against him 11 months into his ordeal.
The charge sheet said the father-of-three was accused of insulting Erdogan and government officials on Twitter. With a laugh, Topkaya noted that his supposed account was posting Tweets even when he was in jail without internet access.
The charge sheet also noted that he had used the ByLock messaging app that authorities say coup plotters communicated with, and that he was working for NATO. While Turkey is a longtime alliance member and hundreds of Turkish nationals are posted at NATO headquarters, being seen as pro-NATO or pro-Western is an indictment these days, Topkaya said.
If the charges seemed surreal to him, conditions in Sincan prison outside Ankara were all too real. Living with four men in a cell meant for three, Topkaya said he slept on the floor without heating in sub-zero temperatures that first winter.
“I had four pairs of socks and it was like my feet were still in ice buckets. Once I cried from being cold,” he said.
When a U.N. monitoring team visited Sincan, inmates were given a second mattress, which Topkaya said felt “like sleeping in a Hilton suite.”
Asked about Topkaya’s case, a senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said only: “We refuse to associate with Gulenists and do not find it necessary to respond to their claims.”
In a statement in December 2016 after visiting several Turkish prisons, U.N. envoy Nils Melzer said conditions were broadly “acceptable” though “significantly overcrowded.” He noted inmate claims about “the freezing temperature” in one location, and “numerous allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.”
Human rights group Amnesty International has reported extensively on cases of abuse and torture linked to the coup. Some of the worst punishment was reserved for military personnel.
Topkaya said he wasn’t subjected to torture but spoke to prisoners who said they were.
Turkey’s government insists it has a policy of zero tolerance to torture and says perpetrators are brought to justice.
This February, 16 months after Topkaya was lured to Ankara by commanders for an “urgent meeting” and detained, a judge granted him conditional release due to prosecution delays in substantiating its case, but he would have to report each week to police.
His diplomatic passport had been confiscated, but he still had an old normal one that was valid for a few more months and decided to use it. He fled to Greece a few weeks later and by March was back in Belgium, where his wife and children have refugee status.
“It was like coming to life again after death,” he said. “For the first few days we couldn’t talk much. We just looked at each other’s face and laughed, and sometimes we cried.”
In Turkey, though, Topkaya was called a traitor by his own brother, who applied to change his family name, according to Turkish media. The brother, who was also in the navy, was relieved of his duties because of his family ties to Topkaya and was waging a legal battle to be re-instated, media reports said.
“It’s like a picture of what’s happening in Turkey. Many families have been broken and split up like this,” Topkaya said. “I still love him,” he added. “I hope that like the rest of the nation he will one day wake from this dream and we will hug again.”