Over a Single Dollar Bill, a NASA Scientist Remains Trapped in a Turkish Prison
Illustration by Peter Bollinger
It happens in a moment. Serkan Golge, a 36-year-old scientist employed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, places the last suitcase in the rental car parked outside his parents’ home in southern Turkey and turns to say good-bye to the mass of family gathered on the sidewalk next to the car.
The Turkish police, dressed in plain clothes, sidle into the crowd of relatives gathered around Serkan and start asking him questions before anyone realizes that the two men are strangers. His wife, Kubra, crouches in the backseat working to strap her three-month-old son, Agah, into his car seat so they can head to Istanbul, the first leg of their journey home to Houston. The baby kicks his feet and gurgles as she struggles to get him securely locked in, and she doesn’t notice until her mother-in-law nudges her and whispers urgently that officers have come, and they are talking to Serkan.
It is July 23, 2016, just over a week after the historic coup attempt to drive Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan out of power that was thwarted when the public took to the streets to support the democratically elected president.
Serkan Golge was a senior researcher at Johnson Space Center before his arrest in July 2016.
Courtesy of Kubra Golge
While coups have been a part of the Turkish political landscape since the country was founded 95 years ago, the last major attempt to overthrow the government was in 1980, before Serkan or Kubra were born.
Even as the police reveal they are following up on a tip that Serkan may be part of the Gülen movement, the organization Erdogan has blamed for the failed coup, Serkan and Kubra assume there has been a mistake.
When the officers casually tell Serkan that the caller said he may be an operative spying on Turkey and attempting to help overthrow the Turkish government on behalf of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Serkan is so sure it will all be sorted out soon he only asks Kubra to call and delay their flight to Istanbul by a few hours.
Serkan’s mother keeps her mouth pursed in a tight knot, struggling to hide her fear from her grandchildren. “She and Serkan’s dad lived through the 1980 coup. They knew how bad this could get,” Kubra says now.
After a few minutes, the officers ask Serkan to take the suitcases inside so neighbors won’t see the luggage being searched. They rummage through the house, search cell phones and computers and then politely fire questions at Serkan in the guest room. Finally, the officers ask Serkan to come to the police station to answer a few more questions. Kubra follows Serkan out of the house, their six-year-old son, Mustafa, close at her heels.
Standing on the street, Serkan realizes they are going to arrest him. Glancing at Mustafa, Serkan hugs Kubra and asks her to take the boy inside.
Two hours later the police come back. This time they walk into Serkan’s brother’s room, open the drawer of a bureau, pull out a small wooden keepsake box and produce a single American dollar bill. The dollar means that Serkan is part of the Gülenists, a movement classified as a terrorist organization in Turkey that is being blamed for a failed attempt to oust Erdogan, the police claim.
But Serkan is an American citizen. He is certain this means he can get help from the U.S. government.
Kubra, frantic, calls and emails Serkan’s employers at NASA and the University of Houston to inform them of the situation. She contacts the American Consulate in Turkey and is told there is little the consulate can do. Even though both Kubra and Serkan are U.S. citizens, they are also Turkish citizens. The two countries have an agreement under which the United States does not interfere in matters involving people who have dual citizenship, and those citizens are treated as Turkish.
The U.S. State Department does not even acknowledge Serkan has been arrested until a month later. When then-vice president Joe Biden speaks publicly about the attempted coup in September, he makes no mention of Serkan.
In May 2017 President Donald Trump shakes hands with Erdogan in the White House. Serkan’s case is not brought up. In June Secretary of State Rex Tillerson inquires about Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who is also accused of being a Gülen supporter and is being held in Turkey. Tillerson does not touch on Serkan or the seven other Americans who have been detained and imprisoned on what appear to be false charges, according to the congressional Helsinki Commission.
Now Serkan has been in jail for more than a year and in solitary confinement for roughly ten months, allowed to see Kubra only once a week and permitted to be in the same room as his wife and children every other month. “One day you’re a NASA scientist’s wife, the next you’re an accused terrorist’s wife,” Kubra says now. “It’s insane.”
When Serkan and Kubra were growing up, Turkey was a stringently secular state. Turkey, a country that straddles the East and the West, was forged out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of its defeat in World War I. The founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, believed that Turkey had to modernize and embrace Western culture if it was going to survive, so he instituted a series of reforms that ranged from swapping out the Arabic alphabet for the Latin alphabet to banning the fez and the wearing of the veil. This led to a culture in which practicing Muslims could not advance in Turkish society. To be a part of government, one could not be openly Islamic. Women could not wear head scarves if they wanted to attend university classes.
Fethullah Gülen started his movement, an approach to Islam that is focused on public service and high education standards and is pro-Western, in the 1970s. Gülen urged his followers to keep their religion private and to focus on gaining positions in the government and the civil service so they could change the culture from the inside. At the same time, Erdogan was also working to make it acceptable to practice Islam openly in Turkish society, and in the 2000s the pair became allies, which helped Erdogan become prime minister in 2003.
Fethullah Gülen insists he and his followers were not involved in the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
Photo by VOA via Creative Commons
Ahmet Yayla, former chief counterterrorism officer of Turkey, now a professor at George Mason University, says, “People saw Erdogan as the man who saved us and gave us our religion. They never looked back because they had a leader who gave them the lifestyle they wanted to live. It was a powerful thing.”
With Erdogan’s support, the Gülen movement, known as “Hizmet” (which means “service” in Turkish), grew rapidly. The Gülenists ran a loose network of charity organizations dedicated to improving local communities in Turkey, while also controlling lucrative publishing houses, banks and various media entities across the country. The movement also started countless schools, both in Turkey and internationally — the Harmony charter schools, headquartered in Houston, have been tied to the Gülen movement — and established college entrance test preparation centers, college dormitories and universities all over Turkey.
Serkan, noticeably bright from a young age, was eager to get a good education, but his parents weren’t wealthy, so he went to the Gülen test centers because they offered the best preparation for taking university entrance exams.
His scores were so high that the state gave him a full scholarship to Faith University, one of the Gülen-founded schools closed by the government in the wake of the coup. (His time at the test centers and the university has now been used to imply he is a Gülenist, but thousands of people attended the centers and the Gülen-run schools and universities in Turkey.) From there, he went to the United States and studied physics at Old Dominion in Virginia.
Kubra was planning to come to the United States to study English literature when she met Serkan in 2005. “Some women pray for husbands that are very handsome, but I prayed for a man who would be kind, a good man. I could tell when I met Serkan that he was this kind of man,” Kubra says now.
It was love at first sight. Serkan never proposed and Kubra never accepted, but it was decided by the time they’d finished their first cup of coffee together. They married within six months, and she moved to Virginia. Both of them won the green card lottery and became U.S. citizens in 2010.
At first the couple insisted they were going to live in the United States only temporarily. They bought cheap Ikea furniture, got rid of accumulated belongings every time they moved and went home to Turkey every year for at least a month.
When Serkan was offered a job at the Johnson Space Center funded through the University of Houston and NASA to research the physics of getting astronauts to Mars, moving to Houston was an easy decision. In the first months, the intricate freeway system, the suburban sprawl and the sheer size of the city daunted Kubra, but as she and Serkan settled in, she began to enjoy the city.
Kubra and their sons visiting Serkan in prison.
Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge
For the first time in her life, she says, she wore a head scarf, and if people said anything, it was only to compliment the vibrant fabrics she chose to cover her hair. Houston has a large Turkish population, and the Golges quickly made friends with other expats. Serkan was working on how to protect astronauts from radiation on the journey to Mars, and was engrossed in the task.
They bought a modest, two-story brick house in southwest Houston, explaining to everyone that it simply made more sense to purchase a home rather than dumping money into rented apartments. Serkan was busy but he always found time to barbecue, and they had friends over on the weekends.
Most of the furniture was still inexpensive, but the couple bought a solid oak table secondhand. Together they sanded it down and repainted the table inky black with a gleaming lacquered finish. Kubra polished the table carefully once a week and protected it with a plastic cover. A few months later, they bought a washer and a dryer large enough to handle a king-size bedspread. Mustafa had friends over, and learned to speak Turkish and English. “We loved our life in Houston. We were happy,” Kubra says now.
In Turkey the secular was giving way to an increasingly Islamic-leaning state. From 2007 to 2012 the ruling parties, the Gülen faction and the AKP, Erdogan’s party, purged the government of liberals and secularists, using trumped-up charges to remove people from office. But in 2013 the alliance between Erdogan and Gülen (living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999) soured. Erdogan declared the Gülenists were trying to undermine the government and started closing schools and media outlets and criticizing the United States for harboring Gülen.
Still, the attempt to overthrow the government in July 2016 came as a shock. Kubra had already been in Turkey visiting her family for about a month when Serkan arrived in late June, and had noticed nothing unusual.
On the night of the coup attempt, Kubra was in bed when she heard a religious call, the sala, which typically is used only to announce a death or in times of war, echoing from mosques across Antakya. Serkan was having dessert with a group of childhood friends at a nearby cafe. She listened for a moment as the wail gave way to car horns blaring and distant shouting in the streets, before dismissing the clamor as an oddity of Antakya, turning off the light and going to sleep.
“There had been rumors, but the entire thing unfolded strangely,” says Yayla, the George Mason professor, who watched the uprising from the United States. “The coup started at 10 p.m. in Turkey, when everyone was still awake. The Internet, the phone lines, the TV stations were all still operating, and the people leading didn’t capture Erdogan or the prime minister. If you don’t capture the heads of state, it is not a real coup.”
At the cafe, Serkan noticed people clustered around a TV, but nobody knew what was happening. He only realized there had been an attempted coup the next morning when he turned on the television.
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to the White House in May, Donald Trump failed to mention the Americans held in Turkey.
Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead
Still, Kubra and Serkan assumed they were safe. They say they were not part of the coup, they were leaving soon and nobody in the family was particularly religious or overtly political.
Within hours of the attempted coup, Erdogan announced Gülenists were behind it, and declared the group an armed terrorist organization. Initially, arrests were focused on military officers, but efforts quickly expanded to include anyone suspected of having Gülenist ties, or anyone who might oppose Erdogan.
Eight days later, Serkan was arrested.
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Kubra knew where the authorities were holding Serkan, but was told only lawyers would be allowed to visit suspected Gülenists, which was a problem since lawyers were being arrested in droves and few were willing to represent anyone caught up in the purge. Kubra visited the detention center repeatedly, eyeing the barbed wire lining the fence each time she walked in, but did not see Serkan for 22 days.
When she finally walked into the visiting room at the detention center, Kubra and Serkan wrapped their arms around each other and sobbed. “I don’t know if I ever had such pain in my life. I was not sick, but even my bones were crying. I will never forget such pain,” she says now. “It was like being in a dungeon with no light.”
Weeks later the lawyer who had agreed to represent Serkan procured the indictment against him, which was composed of 33 pages outlining broad accusations against Gülen supporters and two pages detailing the charges and evidence against Serkan.
Serkan’s sister had been quarreling with her brother-in-law over an inheritance. A week after the failed attempt to oust Erdogan, the man called the local police station and said he had heard Serkan was a top secret agent employed by the CIA, advising the officers to move quickly if they wanted to question him since Serkan was leaving the country soon.
The indictment lists other “suspicious activity,” noting that Serkan had left and re-entered the country numerous times since 2003 (the year he started school in the United States) and that he entered Turkey in June 2016 using his U.S. passport. His NASA employee ID card, good through November 2018, was also entered as evidence.
Once the investigators found the American dollar bill in his parents’ house, they contended it was ample proof Serkan was a spy and a Gülen terrorist.
As outlandish as all of this sounds, it is how most of these cases have been handled so far. Yayla, the former counterterrorism officer, had been forced to move to the United States in 2015 when ISIS became displeased with his work, but Yayla’s 19-year-old son stayed behind to attend university. Shortly after the coup attempt, Yayla penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal claiming that Erdogan was the one behind the coup because it helped the president oust the Gülenists and had given him an opportunity to expand and consolidate his power.
Within days, Yayla’s son, Yavuz Yayla, was pulled off a bus. A search unearthed a single American dollar bill from his backpack, and Yavuz was arrested. The indictment against him comprised about 30 pages of allegations against Gülenists and a few specific, similarly sketchy pieces of evidence against him — he had the dollar, and he mispronounced the name of the city he was going to for vacation. If convicted, Yavuz, like Serkan, faces up to 15 years in prison.
“The government claimed my son was a Gülenist and was using the dollar bill serial number to communicate with other Gülenists. It’s 100 percent bogus,” Yayla says. “Because I am the enemy, they have my son. They still have not let him out.”
More than 100,000 Turks have been purged from the government, including more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors, while more than 50,000 are in jail. While these firings and arrests initially focused on Gülenists, the arrests have expanded to include others. The judicial system is overwhelmed right now since 4,000 prosecutors and judges were purged as Gülenists and thousands are sitting in prison awaiting trial, according to various reports.
The U.S. consulate in Istanbul has not even been given access to Serkan.
Photo by the United States Department of State
Serkan spent the first two weeks at a detention center, where he was kept in solitary confinement and went through daily interrogations. “It felt like death in that detention center,” he later told a Daily Beast reporter being held in the cell below him. He was moved to a prison on the coast, 38 miles away from Antakya, where Kubra was staying with his parents, shortly after he was formally charged in August 2016.
At first he was kept in a dormitory room with about a dozen other men. It was crowded, but he was grateful for the company, Kubra says. But in October he was transferred to solitary confinement, where he has been ever since. He prays, he reads anything he can get, he exercises and paces in his cell to pass the time. He gets one hour outside each day, but is always alone.
Serkan did not appear in court until April 17, 2017, ten months after being initially detained.
Despite hours of waiting handcuffed to a chair in a holding room, he was ready to defend himself. “If I had not been arrested upon a flagrant slander on July 23, 2016, I at the moment would be continuing my research in my office at NASA as one of the few Turks among the thousands of scientists and engineers who are working in the manned trip to Mars project,” Serkan told the court.
The men on the three-judge panel were barely listening to Serkan or his lawyer, Kubra says. Two of the judges spent the two-hour trial doodling on court documents while the third swiveled his chair around, closed his eyes and slept for a few minutes. The judges declined to release Serkan.
A representative from the U.S. consulate had arrived that morning to attend Serkan’s hearing, but the hearing, which was scheduled for 10 a.m., did not begin until after 6 p.m. and the representative had to leave. (The U.S. consulate in Turkey declined to comment and referred the Houston Press to the U.S. State Department.)
Serkan’s congressman, Representative Gene Green, penned a letter of inquiry and submitted it to the Turkish ambassador (after the Press notified Green’s office of Serkan’s situation) in April, but his office says it never received any response. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent government agency that monitors human rights, sent a formal letter to protest Serkan’s incarceration and treatment in May, but the Turkish government has ignored that as well.
Senator John Cornyn’s office initially stated it was unaware of Serkan’s plight when the Press first inquired about this in April. The offices of Cornyn and Senator Ted Cruz did not respond to repeated requests for comment via phone and email on Serkan’s case.
A U.S. State Department official replied to Press queries about what, if anything, the State Department has done to help Serkan by confirming that Serkan, a U.S. citizen, was arrested and has been detained in Turkey since July 2016. “We remain concerned for Mr. Golge and have raised his case with Turkish authorities,” the State Department official said. “Although the United States does not have a legal right to access dual U.S.-Turkish citizens detained in Turkey, we continue to press for such access as a matter of courtesy.”
The White House has remained silent.
This is partly because the relationship between the United States and Turkey has always been difficult but crucial for both countries, James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said recently in a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We would not have won the Cold War if Turkey had gone under or even been neutralized. Turkey would not have remained a sovereign state if we were not supporting it from about 1945 on.” The two countries need each other, he says.
A Turkish political science researcher based in Texas, who has asked that we not use his name or give his specific location because he has family in Turkey who may be penalized, says the U.S. government is in a difficult situation because aside from the dual-citizenship question, the rumors that Serkan was a CIA agent could make it look bad if the United States does try to step in. Turkey is a crucial ally in the fight against ISIS, and the United States cannot afford to further alienate the country. (A majority of the Turkish population still believes that the United States was behind the attempted coup.)
During the next hearing, Serkan chose to videoconference from his prison, 38 miles from the courthouse, rather than go through the humiliation of being transported again. The man who had accused Serkan testified in court that he did not have any proof, but assumed that anyone working in the United States was a spy.
The judges announced that prosecutors were going to examine his phone records next. Stunned, Kubra stared at her husband’s face on the videoconference monitor, thinking how young he looked. He’d lost more than 20 pounds since his arrest, and his good gray suit swam on his slender frame.
He lifted his eyes, looked into the camera and tried to sit up straighter as the connection began to fuzz out and then abruptly cut off. As the screen went black, Kubra snapped to attention and started yelling. “Justice! Justice! Justice!” she screamed.
On July 4 Serkan once again appeared in court via videoconference. The phone records had yielded nothing incriminating — he did not have ByLock, a smartphone application reportedly used by those behind the attempted coup.
The judges ordered prosecutors to see if he called anyone who had the application on their phone, and set the next hearing for July 19. In the hallway, Kubra buried her face in her hands.
A drawing by Mustafa at the Golges’ Houston home; Serkan in their Houston kitchen; Kubra and their sons visiting Serkan in prison.
Photo by Mitchell Nguyen; Photos courtesy of Kubra Golge
Shortly after Serkan’s arrest last year, Kubra called Ali, a friend who has asked that his real name not be used because he has family in Turkey. Ali was watching the Golges’ house in Houston while they were gone, and Kubra sobbed out the news.
He told her everything would be OK. Surely this was a misunderstanding and they would be home in Houston soon.
“Do you believe this?” she asked. “Are you telling me this to comfort me or do you believe it?”
He said he was sure it was so, that he would not lie to her.
“Now,” he says, looking around the empty house, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to lie to her, but I do not know what to say. I hope he will be let out of solitary confinement. It is so cruel. I hope he will be let out on bail at least. I hope he will be released and they can come home. I hope these things, but I do not know these things will happen anymore.”
The Golge family have spent their savings waiting on Serkan to be released. Kubra does not dare to leave Turkey for fear she either won’t be allowed to leave or will not be permitted to enter again.
About six months ago, the couple reluctantly decided to put their house in Houston on the market. Friends cleaned and packed up personal things and stowed them in the closets so the house could be shown.
Serkan Golge in the family's Houston kitchen.
Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge
The Golges got an offer within a week, but the buyers wanted the dining-room table and the washer and dryer in the deal. Kubra replied that she would take a lower price but would not sell those things. A few days later she pulled the house off the market.
Almost none of the charges against Serkan have stuck, even in the Mad Hatter world of the current Turkish judicial system, but the authorities have refused to drop the allegations entirely or to grant Serkan bail, put him under house arrest or remove him from solitary confinement.
Serkan could perhaps have been released — his lawyer told the court during one of the hearings that officers had said they would let him go if he agreed to spy for Turkey, but he refused. When he developed kidney stones, he had to ask repeatedly before seeing a doctor. Then he was in the hospital for three days before Kubra was informed. Once he recovered, he went back to solitary. Still, he is lucky. Some people are being tortured, beaten and raped while in prison, according to various reports.
NASA refuses to comment on Serkan’s situation and referred the Press to the State Department, but the University of Houston is keeping Serkan’s position as a senior researcher open, barring any changes to the contract budget or other variables, Mike Rosen, UH communications director, says.
The year has been a strain on all of them. In a photo taken when the entire family was able to visit Serkan, Mustafa, cuddled on his father’s lap, grins for the camera, but Kubra, pressed tightly to Serkan’s side, does not attempt a smile.
“Serkan is amazing. He has faith this will all be sorted out and he will be released,” she says. “I feel like my emotions are starting to freeze.”
Mustafa blames his mother for allowing the police to take Serkan. He says he wants to go back to his school in Houston with his friends and to his bedroom with his toys, and cries in his sleep. “He is a year older and his questions are harder,” Kubra says. “He wants to know why bad men took Daddy.”
The Golges put their house on the market again about a month ago. This time Kubra has not said anything about the dining-room table or the washer and dryer. She says those things don’t matter now.
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