The urgent order from their commander was to pick up casualties from an "emergency situation in the center of Istanbul." As the responding members of three Turkish search-and-rescue teams approached Vatan Avenue in their Black Hawk helicopters, they encountered gunfire so intense that only one of the three helicopters could land and collect the injured soldiers. All three then evacuated to nearby Topkule base.
There, they were instructed by their commander not to return to their home base as it was "unsafe." A few minutes later Topkule came under attack, with incoming fire aimed at the helicopters. Eight officers escaped in one Black Hawk to a nearby forest, where they turned to their iPads for news.
It was July 15, 2016. A coup was under way, but little else was known. It wasn't even clear to them for which side, if any, the three Black Hawk crews had just flown their mission.
The officers repeatedly called their commander for further instructions, but without success. When they saw on the news scenes of killings and lynchings of soldiers and officers by "enraged citizens," they decided to flee, choosing to go to Greece because, as they said, "It's a European country." They eventually told me their story in a series of interviews conducted through their lawyer from the detention center here where they are being kept.
To these eight, like hundreds of others who sought asylum in European Union countries in July, "European" represents a certain set of values. The expectation was that they would find safety in the EU until the chaos in Turkey died down.
The attempted coup failed. In its wake, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued, punished and purged those whom it perceives to have played a role, but also others it considers its enemies. This includes demanding the extradition of some asylum seekers back to Turkey to stand trial.
Sweden was the first to refuse Ankara's extradition requests, sending a strong message that a democracy doesn't hand people over to a country where the rule of law has broken down and a fair trial can't be assured.
This message, alas, hasn't reached Greece. The day after the Black Hawk officers arrived and were placed in a cell, Mr. Erdogan announced that "Prime Minister [Alexis] Tsipras assured me the officers will be extradited." There was no denial of this from Mr. Tsipras.
In a later call for the eight officers' extradition, Turkey's foreign minister called them "traitors"--thus erasing any illusion that the officers would receive a fair trial once back home. Then, in September, a smiling Mr. Tsipras declared in Mr. Erdogan's presence that "putschists are not welcome in Greece."
In a true democracy, Mr. Tsipras's kowtows to Mr. Erdogan would be merely contemptible, a blatant attempt to gain personal favor at the expense of human rights. But in today's Greece they are cause for great alarm.
The coalition government of Mr. Tsipras's purportedly radical left-wing Syriza party and the ultranationalistic right-wing Independent Greeks has lately been veering dangerously close to authoritarianism, creating laws and bending institutions to augment its power. An attempt to shut down television networks unfriendly to the government was in full swing this summer, while the country's oldest progressive newspapers, fierce critics of the government, are being strangled into oblivion by state-controlled banks.
Mr. Tsipras's statements regarding the eight officers defy Greece's laws, by which extradition should be decided by the courts. And on Dec. 5, the country's court of appeals did rule against extradition, on the grounds that the officers have no guarantee of a fair trial in Turkey and that they may even be tortured--in itself enough to decide such a case, regardless of the charge.
But the Court of Appeals' senior prosecutor has annulled that ruling. Now the case is to be heard beginning Tuesday by the country's Supreme Court, whose president is a government appointee notorious for her attempts to extend her term of office by three years and for forming a new, presided-by-herself union of senior judges.
Meanwhile, the only evidence offered by the Turkish state against the eight officers is a series of phone calls they made from Topkule to their commander--who has since been arrested as a participant in the putsch. Their calls went unanswered. The officers say they were merely seeking further instructions from their superior officer amid the confusion of an attempted coup.
I am proud of the fact that democracy was invented in my home town, yet my favorite ancient hero is not Athenian but the Theban Antigone, who defended justice with her life. Luckily, honest Greek judges, unlike some of their Turkish colleagues today, don't need to go to the extremes that Antigone did. But they need moral support, so that they can block out the snarls of threatening authority and listen to their conscience.
Mr. Tsipras loves to talk of "red lines" that he won't cross. But if Greece extradites these Turkish officers, we will have crossed a very thick red line, one separating democracy from authoritarianism, one that's colored by the blood of eight young men.