Meet Former Lieutenant Commander Cafer Topkaya. He is one of the thousands of Turkish officers who have been summarily condemned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as being a terrorist. Specifically, they have been branded supporters of US-based Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the president blames for instigating the failed 2016 coup from his exile in Pennsylvania.

Topkaya managed to escape to Brussels. In an interview with Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, he said he is stepping out of the shadows to tell what he experienced “for those who can’t meet the press, who can’t meet the journalists, who can’t even meet their lawyers now that they are in prison and they can’t prove their innocence”.

The lifelong naval officer said he is “not afraid of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan or his partners…or Turkish intelligence” and wants the west to know what is happening inside Turkey.

“I have never been close to the Gulen movement,” Topkaya DW’s Teri Schultz. “I’m a secular person. I was educated in the Western style. I respect all religions, all ideologies but I’m not a member of any of them.” He felt secure in his record of being a lifelong Navy officer with a so-called cosmic top-security clearance, the highest granted by Nato. His wife Meskure shared his reasoning and wasn’t worried as the family kissed him goodbye for what they thought would be two days.”

Labelled a ‘terrorist’

According to DW, they would not see each other again for more than 16 months. The “meeting” had been a ploy and Topkaya was trapped in the defence ministry, his official pass deactivated so police could swoop in and drag him away. His own former Turkish colleagues now labelled him a “terrorist” and said he had been operating a Twitter account that insulted Erdogan although he protested he had never even had a Twitter account at that point.

Topkaya was held in a re-purposed gymnasium with other high-ranking military personnel, academics, judges, civil society leaders and doctors. He slept on a concrete floor for 12 days in the same clothes and given inadequate food. But he said he personally escaped the harsh physical and mental torture. He saw others returning bruised and battered from interrogations.

According to Topkaya, one officer who refused to accept the charges of conspiring in the coup repeatedly had his wife dragged into interrogations and his young children threatened. Another, he said, had been forced to sign a confession while seated in a chair that delivered electric shocks.

When first brought before a prosecutor, Topkaya remembers finding it difficult even to stand and think from lack of food. “[The judge] said ‘You are working for NATO, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘yes I’m working at the headquarters on behalf of the Turkish Army and I was appointed by the commander of the Turkish Army,’” Topkaya recalled. “But I couldn’t convince her [to release me]. Being pro-west and pro-NATO is a big crime in Turkey now.”

‘We should be more courageous’

Eventually, he was told that trial preparation against him would take longer, which he attributes to the lack of evidence, so Topkaya was released to the custody of his parents, required to check in weekly with the police. But his lawyer warned him there were rumblings of a re-arrest. When he found an old civilian passport with a couple months more validity, he decided to escape. Eventually, he made it to his apartment in Brussels. He started a Twitter account.

Topkaya told DW that he has neither fear nor regret about his decision. He doesn’t feel he’s running from Erdogan. Instead, he’d like to confront him and the other purge leaders.

“I would like to face them. I would like to tell them that what they are doing is wrong,” he said. “What gives them courage is innocent people being frightened. We are innocent. We are on the right side. We should be more courageous.”