An American citizen and NASA scientist jailed in Turkey since last July was denied bail at his first hearing in a Turkish court on Monday.
Serkan Golge, a 37-year-old scientist employed at the Johnson Space Center and an American citizen who has made his home in Houston the past three years, was one of thousands of people arrested in Turkey in the wake of a failed coup to depose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Since then, Serkan has been held in Turkey for more than nine months, with more than six months spent in solitary confinement, based on vague accusations of being a CIA operative and a single American $1 bill found at his parents' home in Antakya.
Last summer, shortly after the attempted coup, Serkan and his wife, Kubra Golge, were packing up to return to Houston when the police showed up, searched their belongings and arrested Serkan. A few hours later they came back, searched the house and ultimately found a dollar bill in a memory box stored in the old bedroom of Serkan's brother.
Turkish prosecutors claim that Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Erdogan blames for the coup, gave his followers blessed $1 bills. Possession of such a bill is now used as evidence of membership in a terrorist organization in Turkey. Authorities insist this bill belongs to Serkan even though he wasn't even staying in the bedroom it was found in.
Serkan, whose case has gotten scant mention in the American or international media, as we've previously noted, has been imprisoned ever since while he waited to appear before a court. (More than 40,000 Turks have been arrested since the attempted coup, so the judges are exhausted and the courts are backed up, Kubra says.)
Nobody is sure how this is going to play out, Kubra says. “This a new thing in Turkey. If there was a law about this, our lawyer says they would drop all of the charges because there is no evidence, nothing. Just a dollar bill.“
Kubra is allowed to see her husband once a week and she and their two young sons can visit him in the same room once every two months. The ordeal is taking its toll on everyone. Kubra is emotionally exhausted. Her mother-in-law cries often and the entire family is concerned about the strain his imprisonment is putting on her father-in-law, who has had a couple of strokes already. Kubra is also worried about her own father, who is trying to help his daughter stay calm but is also dealing with leukemia, she says.
While the couple's one-year-old is too young to know anything is amiss, her oldest son is aware something is wrong. "He's a very emotional kid, but he doesn't show it. He just keeps asking when daddy is coming home," she says.
Despite the mood in Turkey — on Sunday voters passed a measure to change Turkey's governing system and give Erdogan sweeping powers — Kubra still hoped the judges reviewing her husband's case during the bail hearing would see that the evidence against him was thin, at best, and decide to drop the charges entirely.
But while the prosecutors opted to dismiss the CIA accusation after it was revealed the tipster was Serkan's sister's brother-in-law, who is angry about a dispute over some family land, they refused to drop the $1 bill. Serkan is facing a sentence of up to 15 years in prison for being “a member of an armed terrorist organization” because of that $1 bill.
On Monday evening, the four judges reviewing Serkan's case did not seem to even momentarily entertain the notion of releasing him, Kubra says. One of them appeared to be doodling throughout the two-hour hearing.
When Serkan walked into the courtroom, she noticed how thin her husband of ten years has gotten. His work at NASA, where he has been helping figure out how to get astronauts to Mars, is sedentary. Serkan had a bit of a belly when he was arrested last summer but he was all angles now.
Serkan stayed calm during the hearing, answering the judges' questions about why he attended Fatih University in Istanbul, a university tied to Gülen (because the government gave him a scholarship), and why he had a Bank Asia account (for personal use, and it was legal for Turkish people to have these accounts when he got his). "He defended himself very well, but still they didn't release him," Kubra says.
There hasn't been much help from the United States. The couple's elected representatives have been alerted about Serkan's situation, as have NASA and the U.S. State Department, but there's not a lot anyone can do since Serkan is also a Turkish citizen and subject to Turkey's laws while in the country.
A representative from the American Consulate showed up at court on Monday morning but couldn't stay and wait for the hearing to commence that evening.
During the hearing, the judges remarked on Serkan's American citizenship, saying they needed to inquire with Turkey's internal ministry to see if he actually is a citizen of the United States. This was particularly frustrating, Kubra says, since the government has had her husband's U.S. passport ever since he was arrested last July.
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The judges also questioned Serkan, his sister and her husband about the fight the sister's brother-in-law had with the sister over some family land. All three told the court that the disagreement was the only reason the brother-in-law had claimed Serkan might be a spy. Kubra says the brother-in-law has since recanted as well, but he did not attend the hearing.
The judges decided to issue an order demanding the brother-in-law appear at another hearing next month to relate his story to them. "If he doesn't come to that hearing, they will make him come to the next one by force. I hope he tells the truth," Kubra says.
The court also ruled not to release Serkan on bail. Serkan remained calm at this pronouncement from the court, but Kubra started weeping, her anger, frustration and sadness all coming out in sobs. The next hearing is scheduled for May 26.
“I don't know anything right now. What is good? What is bad? What is justice? I don't know anything," she says, her voice trembling. "What I understand is justice is something everybody needs, so I hope the judges can understand the importance of law.”