A $1 Bill Has Landed a NASA Scientist in a Turkish Prison for Nine Months

Serkan Golge, has been a U.S. citizen since 2010 and has lived in the Houston area for the past three  years.
Serkan Golge, has been a U.S. citizen since 2010 and has lived in the Houston area for the past three years. Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge

click to enlarge Serkan Golge, a scientist at the Johnson Space Center, has been held in Turkey since July because of a $1 bill found in his family's home in the wake of the attempted coup that rocked the country last July. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KUBRA GOLGE
Serkan Golge, a scientist at the Johnson Space Center, has been held in Turkey since July because of a $1 bill found in his family's home in the wake of the attempted coup that rocked the country last July.
Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge
When Serkan Golge and his wife, Kubra, boarded a plane at George Bush Intercontinental Airport to visit Turkey last summer with their two sons, they had no idea they were walking into a political maelstrom.

Now, Serkan, 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, has been held in Turkey for nine months, with more than six months spent in solitary confinement, because of vague accusations and a single American $1 bill.

His case has barely been covered in either the American or the international media, and Serkan's elected representatives in Texas only learned of his plight recently.

Shortly after the family arrived at Serkan's parents' house in Antakya in mid-July, a coup erupted in Turkey in an attempt to wrest power from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kubra was getting ready for bed when she heard shouts in the street and melodic wails traditionally used to call people to prayer. She dismissed the clamor in the streets, assuming it was the noise of her husband's childhood city, and went to sleep. It was only when she and Serkan turned on the TV the next morning and saw the news, with thousands marching in the streets, that they began to realize what had happened.

"It was unbelievable," Kubra says now. "We were thinking a coup was an old thing. Our parents had told us stories about coups, but they weren't something that happened anymore. Then it really happened right in front of us."

The coup ultimately failed, but the Turkish government started arresting people, detaining thousands on the thinnest of excuses. More than 40,000 Turks have been arrested since then, according to The New York Times.

Still, the couple assumed they were not a part of the chaos around them. The family isn't political and while they are all devout Muslims who pray five times a day, Kubra says none of them are hardliners. The Golges were due to return to the United States in just over a week, and they saw no reason to change their plans.

But as Serkan was putting their suitcases in the car, preparing to head to Istanbul, where they would catch their flight home to Houston, police dressed in street clothes appeared in the driveway. They asked a series of questions before telling Serkan to take the luggage back into the house. They didn't want to open up the suitcases and search them in front of his family's neighbors, the police explained. The officers had gotten a tip, they said. They'd been told that while Serkan seemed to work for NASA, the tipster claimed he was actually a CIA operative, involved in the coup and also a member of a terrorist organization.

"It was like a sick joke," Kubra says. "I don't have words to describe that moment."

The officers went through the suitcases but didn't find anything, Kubra says. Then they took her husband down to the police station for questioning.

About two hours later the officers appeared again. This time they rifled through the house itself, going room to room. In Serkan's brother's old bedroom, police found what they deemed evidence: A single U.S. $1 bill that had been kept in a keepsake box in a bureau belonging to Serkan's brother. Even though there were at least five people staying in the house, the officers decided the dollar belonged to Serkan and he was arrested, accused of being a CIA operative and a member of a terrorist organization.

Turkish prosecutors claim that Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Erdogan blames for the coup, gave his followers blessed $1 bills, according to the Times. Possession of such a bill is now used as evidence of membership in a terrorist organization.

The officers took Serkan away. He postponed the family's flight to leave a few hours later than planned, but they missed it. He's been imprisoned ever since.

Serkan first came to the United States in 2003 to study. Both he and his wife won green cards in a lottery system for countries with low immigration rates to the United States. The pair have since become American citizens, and have been married for about a decade. They bought a home in Houston and have two children.

Life was full of good fortune. After graduating, Serkan got a job as a contractor through the University of Houston at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Since 2014 he has worked as a senior research scientist charged with studying the effects of space radiation on the human crew aboard the International Space Station. His work is crucial to NASA's plans to land on Mars by the 2030s, since the crew will have to get to Mars without being left debilitated by the radiation exposure from the journey.

Now Mars is the least of Serkan's worries. The first 22 days he was detained, only lawyers could see him. Kubra and the rest of the family scrambled to find a lawyer to represent Serkan — some declined because of fear of being involved, some wanted to charge exorbitant rates — who could help them get in to see him.

When Kubra walked into the room at the detention center, they both started crying. "Being separated, I wasn't sick, but even my bones were crying. My whole body was in such pain. I will never forget such pain," Kubra says. "Everything was like being in a dungeon with no light anywhere near."

Later, the family discovered, via court documents, that the tip had come from Serkan's sister's brother-in-law, who had been having a disagreement with the sister and her husband over some family land, Kubra says. "Once he admitted it, he said he was saving his country because he had a 1 percent suspicion out of 100 percent. He kept saying he was saving his country."

Aside from the tip and the dollar bill, Serkan went to a Gülen-affiliated test preparation center (this isn't as interesting as it seems since thousands of people attended these centers) and attended Fatih University in Istanbul, a university tied to Gülen. However, he went there because the state actually gave him a scholarship. Nothing else has turned up, despite rounds of interrogation and the fact that Serkan has been held in solitary confinement for more than six months.

Kubra gets to see her husband on the other side of a glass wall for about 40 minutes, once a week. Every two months he is allowed to be in the same room as his family. He cries when he sees the children, she says.

Now, the court documents have dropped the CIA accusations, but the prosecutors still have the $1 bill. He will soon go to trial, facing a sentence of up to 15 years in prison for being “a member of an armed terrorist organization.” His first hearing is scheduled for April 17.

Since few publications have written about Serkan's detention, his incarceration has not been on the radar of his elected representatives in Texas.

Libby Hambleton, Senator John Cornyn's deputy press secretary in Texas, says the senator's office was not aware Serkan was being held in Turkey until the Houston Press reached out. Hambleton thanked the Press for bringing it to their attention, but didn't have any information about how Cornyn plans to respond.

Senator Ted Cruz's office failed to return phone messages and emails asking for comment on the issue.

Representative Gene Green's office heard about Serkan's situation only a couple of weeks ago, even though Serkan and Kubra live in Green's district. Last week, Green sent a letter to the Turkish Embassy asking the ambassador to help him secure Serkan's release so that the family can come home to Texas. "If convicted, he could spend up to [15 years] in prison, ruining the life of an innocent family who had built a happy home in Texas," the letter observes.

So far, the Turkish ambassador has not responded.

Serkan works at NASA but technically is employed by the University of Houston. UH spokeswoman Jeannie Kever says Serkan has gone on unpaid leave while he's being held in Turkey, but his position with NASA and UH is being held open for him indefinitely.

When asked whether NASA can or will try to help Serkan, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel referred the Press to the U.S. State Department. That agency acknowledged it has no influence over Turkish authorities in this case.

“We can confirm Turkish authorities arrested and detained U.S. citizen Serkan Golge last July," a U.S. State Department official stated. "We remain concerned for Mr. Golge and have raised his case with Turkish authorities. 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. We have no further comment at this time.”

Even though NASA has stayed quiet, the scientific community has been trying to draw attention to Serkan's case. The Endangered Scholars Worldwide group and the Committee of Concerned Scientists have both issued sharply worded statements over his detention, urging that he be released.

A petition has also been filed asking the White House to intervene. If the petition garners 100,000 signatures by next month, it is supposed to be reviewed by President Donald Trump. It has only about 150 signatures so far.

We've asked the White House if Trump is aware of Serkan's imprisonment, and if he plans on doing anything to help Serkan, but have yet to receive a response.

Kubra is praying that everything will be sorted out at the hearing next month. She noted that she loves her country, and has faith that everything will turn out as it is supposed to. But the whole situation still seems like something out of a movie.

"Sometimes I feel like it is a dream and my life will come back when I wake up. Other times I think it will never come back," she says. "From now on, I do not think bad things only happen to other people. It can happen to me, to us."
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray