Athens, Greece – Greece’s Supreme Court has ruled against extraditing eight Turkish air force officers, in a decision likely to complicate relations between the two countries.
“It is a great victory for European values, for Greek justice,” said the claimants’ lawyer, Christos Mylonopoulos, after the ruling on Thursday.
“The legal thinking is obvious. It is the observation of European values, the observation of legality, and the conservation of judicial civilisation.”
Turkey said it would review its ties with Athens in light of the ruling.
“We will carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of this decision – which we believe has been taken with a political motive – on our bilateral ties, cooperation in the fight against terrorism and on other bilateral and regional issues,” a Turkish foreign ministry statement said.
Turkish authorities want the officers to stand trial for their alleged involvement in the coup last July, which nearly toppled the government, and issued arrest warrants for the eight men in an apparent response to the ruling.
They stand accused of attempting to dissolve the constitution, overthrow parliament, placing civilian human life at risk and stealing army materiel.
The eight have been in police custody since landing at Alexandroupoli airport in a Turkish army helicopter on July 16. The court set all of them free, but it wasn’t clear when that freedom would take effect.
The group had sat petrified in court before the decision, but as the first rulings were read out, they began to smile and nod in acknowledgment.
“We didn’t escape the war. We just saved our lives, and waiting has changed our lives,” one officer later told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
He said that he and his colleagues made up their minds to escape after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on his supporters to rise up against the coup, leading to clashes with troops and bloodshed.
“From our iPads we saw what was happening,” said the officer. “We couldn’t reach our commanders. We waited six or seven hours.”
Turkey has dismissed an estimated 100,000 people from public sector jobs on suspicion of political affiliations hostile to the ruling AKP Party. An estimated 36,000 have been arrested on suspicion of collusion in the July 16 coup attempt.
“The arguments were that first of all they were in danger to undergo inhuman and degrading treatment. The reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey was an additional danger,” Mylonopoulos told Al Jazeera.
A tall order
The request for extradition was always a difficult proposition because of the thickness of the legal requirements.
Turkey is a signatory to the European Treaty on Extradition, which forbids extradition for political or military crimes, and gave Greece the right to refuse extradition if the crimes are punishable by death. Erdogan has said that he may hold a referendum on the return of capital punishment.
Under the European Convention on Human Rights, which Greece has ratified, the officers are deemed to be refugees if they are at risk of torture, execution or inhumane treatment or serious bodily harm in Turkey. Also under Article 6 of the Convention, they may not be extradited for legal process unless they are assured of a fair trial.
Partly on these legal and humanitarian grounds, three Supreme Court criminal prosecutors have in the past weeks come down against extradition. All outside legal opinions the court has heard have also come down against it.
The decision is final and cannot be overturned by the Greek government. Asked if this raises the possibility of more Turkish nationals fleeing what they fear is political persecution, Mylonopoulos said: “The circumstances under which these people came here were very eloquent. It was very obvious that their prosecution was due to political reasons. This does not mean that everybody who has a problem with Turkish authorities can come to Greece to find a shelter.”
The officers have applied for asylum in Greece, a process likely to take months. Asked what they want to do now, one officer replied: “We would like for none of all this to have happened. We would like to go home and be with our families.”