Greek Court Grants Asylum to Turkish Soldier, Raising Tensions With Ankara

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ATHENS—A top Greek court on Thursday granted asylum to a Turkish soldier Ankara accuses of involvement in the country’s 2016 coup attempt, inflaming tensions between NATO allies that are already at their highest levels in decades.

In a final ruling, the Council of State upheld the asylum awarded to former Turkish army captain Suleyman Ozkaynakci, one of eight servicemen who fled to Greece in a helicopter after the failed coup attempt. The ruling is seen as a precedent for the other seven soldiers.

Relations have deteriorated since 2016 over a series of diplomatic, military and territorial frictions. U.S. diplomats have warned tensions could escalate into armed conflict, despite both countries being allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Turkey’s foreign ministry “strongly condemned” the ruling, saying it violates international law and confirms “in the eyes of the international community that Greece is a country which protects and shelters the putschists."

Turkey has pressed Greece for nearly two years to extradite the eight men, calling them “traitors.” The men say they knew nothing of the failed coup plot and were only caught up in its chaotic execution.

The arrival of the eight men has put Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in a bind. He doesn’t want to be seen as giving shelter to officers involved in the failed coup. But Greek human-rights advocates argue the eight men would not get a fair trial in Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian political climate.

Turkish authorities have jailed large numbers of public servants, journalists and others in a sweeping purge of political opponents since the failed coup.

The Greek government has told Turkey that coup participants aren’t welcome in Greece, but that the case of the eight soldiers is in the hands of Greece’s independent judiciary. That argument hasn’t appeased Ankara.

“The legal system in Greece … has just ruled to protect the terrorists who attempted a coup to overthrow Turkish democracy,” Omer Celik, Turkey’s minister for relations with the European Union, tweeted late on Wednesday.

Greece and Turkey have long quarreled over maritime borders and other issues, and nearly went to war in 1996 over a disputed island.

Relations improved after that incident, but have deteriorated again recently. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called into question the 1923 treaty that settled Turkey’s western borders.

In March, Turkey arrested two Greek soldiers who strayed across the Turkish border while on patrol, and has accused them of espionage. Mr. Erdogan proposed swapping the two Greeks for the eight Turkish soldiers. Greek government officials fear the asylum ruling could make it harder to secure the two Greek soldiers’ release.

Greece says Turkish air-force planes have doubled their incursions into Greek airspace. Turkey also accuses Greece’s air force of violating its airspace.

In February a Turkish coast-guard vessel rammed a Greek counterpart near a disputed islet. Last month Greek soldiers fired warning shots near a Turkish helicopter that approached their base on an island.

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