ATHENS (Reuters) - Eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece in a military helicopter after last week’s failed coup fear they will be killed if they are sent back home, one of their lawyers said on Thursday.
The men - three majors, three captains and two sergeant majors - landed in the northern Greek border city of Alexandroupolis on Saturday after issuing a distress signal. They were arrested and have sought political asylum.
“They believe that, one way or another, they will lose their lives (in Turkey),” said Vasiliki Ilia Marinaki, a lawyer representing four of the men, as they appeared in court with their faces covered.
“Regardless of whether the death penalty is imposed or not, they believe that in the end they will be killed,” she said.
They were convicted on Thursday of entering Greece illegally and were handed a two-month suspended jail sentence. Their asylum requests are being examined and they are to appear before immigration authorities next week for further interviews.
Turkey has branded the men “traitors” and “terrorist elements” and has asked Greece to extradite them. Greece says it will examine their asylum requests quickly.
Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2004 but President Tayyip Erdogan has told crowds of supporters chanting for the death penalty that such demands may be discussed in parliament.
Since the coup attempt crumbled on Saturday, the Turkish government has launched a purge of the armed forces and judiciary, rounding up thousands of people.
The eight men say they did not know a coup was under way and they were obeying orders by their superiors to transport the wounded from the streets to ambulances, according to their lawyers. They decided to flee when their Black Hawk helicopter came under fire by police on the ground.
“They were in a state of emergency and that is why they entered Greek territory,” Marinaki said before the ruling.
“In any case, they entered Greece officially, meaning they landed officially at the airport, they disembarked and immediately requested political asylum.”
In a joint statement read out by another lawyer, Katerina Dapoudani, the eight reiterated they had “absolutely no involvement” in the coup attempt.
“We apologize for any tumult we caused the Greek state but we had no other choice. We believe in democratic principles and human rights...We are officers of the Turkish army, and we are proud of that,” the statement said.
“We served with self-sacrifices all these years and we love our country. We are saddened by the situation prevailing in Turkey.”
Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; editing by Mark Heinrich