After sitting in a Turkish jail for more than a year after first being accused of involvement in a failed coup attempt, on Thursday Serkan Golge, the 38-year-old NASA scientist, husband and father of two was convicted by a local Turkish court and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. At this point, neither Golge or is family were even surprised.
It has been clear for months that Turkish officials were not going to release Golge, a Houston resident who holds dual citizenship in Turkey and the United States, after the courts have repeatedly refused to even release him on bail.
Golge, a physicist who works as a senior researcher at NASA's Johnson Space Center here in Houston, 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, his wife Kubra and their sons were visiting their family in Ankara when the uprising against Erdogan occurred in June 2017. The push to oust Erdogan was quickly put down—so quickly, in fact, that many experts believe the whole thing might have been staged by Erdogan himself as an excuse to round up political opponents in the military and other parts of Turkish society, particularly members of a rival party, the Gülenists—and the couple, who have lived in the United States for more than a decade, becoming citizens in 2010, decided not to cut their trip short since none of the family was involved or even particularly political.
But when they were packing up for the trip home to Houston in July, two police officers dressed in plain clothes showed up in front of the Golge family home and started asking Serkan questions. They searched the house and took him to the police station for questioning. Kubra was worried, but Golge was sure it was all some sort of misunderstanding and told her there was no need to change their airline reservations—the problem would soon be sorted out. Then the police came back and searched the house again, this time producing a single U.S. dollar bill.
Everything snowballed from there. Golge was arrested and accused of being a CIA operative and a supporter 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 attempt—based on various bits of information prosecutors have claimed are evidence of an association with Gülen, including the bank Golge used while in Turkey and that dollar bill, reportedly a symbol of his membership to the movement.
Since then, Golge has been in numerous hearings—held anywhere between every few weeks and every few months—and most of the "evidence" against him, including items like his NASA ID badge, has easily been explained away. The long court process also revealed that the spark of all of this was a tip called into local police in Ankara by a family member angry over an inheritance dispute, which makes the accusations against Golge look even more suspect. Golge has steadily denied having any affiliation with the cleric, who currently lives in exile in the United States. Gulen himself denies that he had anything to do with the coup attempt.
But still, the court has moved ahead. Now Golge has been convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to seven years and six months in prison, minus his time served so far. He's not alone by any means. More than 150,000 Turks were suspended from work in the wake of the coup attempt and more than 50,000 were arrested, with many remaining in jail on painfully thin charges. Erdogan continues to claim that all of them have clear ties to the uprising, despite numerous stories showing that many of the arrests are based on as little as a single U.S. dollar bill found in the person's things.
He has been held in solitary confinement for months, only allowed to see his wife, Kubra, through a screened window once a week and only permitted to be in the same room with his wife and two young sons about once a month. Despite the fact that Golge holds both Turkish and U.S. citizenship, U.S. consulate officials in Turkey were not able to see him until last October.
The U.S. government has had a complicated relationship with Turkey, a key ally, in recent years, and U.S. officials have been slow to publicly get involved in Golge's case or any of the other Americans being held in Turkey since July 2016, as the Houston Press noted last August.
But the State Department weighed in after the decision was announced on Thursday. “The United States is deeply concerned by the Feb. 8 conviction without credible evidence of U.S. citizen Serkan Golge for being a member of a terror organization,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
“Turkish citizen Serkan Golge was tried by an independent Turkish court and sentenced after a fair trial,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement, according to Reuters. “We expect our U.S. counterparts to respect the decisions of the independent Turkish courts.”
Kubra, who has remained in Ankara with her sons, was not surprised by the verdict, and they are already planning to appeal to a higher court in the Turkish judicial system. However, even the judicial system in Turkey seems to be at odds with itself. In late January, an Istanbul court ordered the release of Taner Kilic, Amnesty International's top representative in Turkey, one of the most prominent political prisoners in the country right now, after he'd been held for more than six months in his hometown of Izmir on charges of being a Gülenist. But the terrorism charges against Kilic, which are very similar to those against Golge, were not dropped. Despite the orders from Istanbul to let Kilic out, a local court stepped in and denied his release. So even if a higher court reviews Golge's case and decides to clear him, it's unclear if the local court will actually abide by that ruling.
Golge wasn't in the courtroom for his sentencing on Thursday—in recent months he has been opting to attend his court dates remotely from the jail, rather than deal with sitting locked up in alone in another room waiting for hours to get his case heard—but Kubra watched his face on a TV screen as he was sentenced, and says he looked calm.
Initially, their goal was simply to get back home and resume their life in Houston, but when the court refused to even let Golge out on bail last spring, they gave in and put their southwest Houston home on the market. NASA and University of Houston are responsible for funding his position as senior researcher on the mission to send astronauts to Mars, and UH has said previously that they will hold his place open for him until he can return. If the position continues to remain open for him, at least there will be that to come back to.
But right now, Golge and Kubra aren't even thinking that far ahead, choosing instead to focus on the next step, of appealing and getting the conviction overturned. Neither of them are thinking past that. "We are trying to stay hopeful," Kubra says.