U.S.-Turkey Relations Deteriorate as NASA Scientist Remains Jailed

The ties between Turkey and the United States are growing increasingly strained. And in the middle of all this, Serkan Golge — the 37-year-old NASA scientist and U.S. citizen who has been held in a Turkish jail for more than a year on charges of being involved in an attempted coup — is still stuck in legal limbo in Turkey. 

Golge, a physicist who works as a senior researcher at NASA's Johnson Space Center, is one of at least seven American citizens who were swept up in the aftermath of the failed coup to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey in July 2016.

Golge and his wife, Kubra, both Turkish-American dual citizens, had gone home with their two young sons to visit their family in Turkey in June 2016, and while they were rattled by the uprising from military officials that subsequently led thousands of supporters of Erdogan to take to the streets and prevent the coup, the couple thought that since they were soon to return home to Houston and were not politically involved, they would be safe, as we reported in our August cover story.

But Erdogan and officials in his government began arresting people shortly after the coup — Erdogan claims that the more than 50,000 who have been arrested, and more than 150,000 suspended from work since the failed coup, all have clear ties to the uprising, claims that analysts have found questionable, since many people were picked up by police on the thinnest of allegations. The day the family was due to leave, police officers came for Golge.

The police detained Golge and subsequently charged him with various crimes, claiming that he was a follower of Fethullah Gülen — the Islamic cleric who started a popular modernist movement of Islam in Turkey, a former political ally Erdogan has subsequently blamed for the coup — and that Golge was a spy for the CIA. He has been in Turkish custody ever since, only allowed to see his wife and two young sons once a week and kept mostly in solitary confinement, according to his wife.

Serkan Golge has been held in a Turkish prison for more than a year.
Serkan Golge has been held in a Turkish prison for more than a year.
Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge

Golge's friends and colleagues in the United States have tried to publicize his case, reaching out to the Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations set up to help researchers caught up in political maelstroms like this one, but their efforts have yet to result in any change in the situation. Despite the efforts of various groups, U.S. officials have not been terribly responsive, and the White House, under both the Obama and the Trump administrations, has remained publicly silent on Golge's plight.

Because of the lack of outrage, Golge's story has also flown mostly under the radar of the national media.

Until now, that is.

About the same time that a Turkish citizen who was working as a U.S. Consulate employee in Istanbul was arrested last week and accused of being a terrorist (Erdogan has had Gülenists declared official agents of terrorism) and a spy, Golge's story began popping up in The New York Times, CNN, Politico, Slate and other media outlets. Kubra says she is hoping the increased coverage of his case will help increase pressure on the Turks to release him.

It's a delicate situation, though. Many suggest that Turkey is holding Golge along with the pastor Andrew Brunson and other American citizens to use them as bargaining chips to trade for Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile. This may help explain why Golge has yet to be released, but it doesn't make his situation any less troubling since the United States has already repeatedly refused to hand over Gülen and is unlikely to opt to do so now.

At the same time, the Turkey-U.S. relationship is growing increasingly fraught. On Monday John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, noted that Turkey has yet to even explain why the U.S. Consulate staffer was arrested, and suggested that people in the Turkish government are deliberately working to snarl the longstanding relationship between the two countries. Erdogan mocked the allegation and then responded on Thursday by stating he will no longer recognize Bass as an ambassador.

Amid all of this, Golge is up for yet another hearing on Friday. While Kubra is hoping the media coverage will help sway the judges on the case to dismiss the charges, or at least allow Golge to be released on bail, she is also praying the Turkish-U.S. tensions don't create more problems for her husband in court.

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