Andrew Brunson Isn't the Only American Citizen Being Held in Turkey

The Trump administration has threatened sanctions over detainment of evangelical pastor, but not for Johnson Space Center scientist Serkan Golge.

By Dianna Wray August 7, 2018

The Trump administration has repeatedly voiced anger, and has now threatened sanctions against NATO ally Turkey, over the detainment of Presbyterian pastor Andrew Brunson, who was accused of spying and terrorism in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

But the administration has failed to voice the same displeasure for the other American citizens who were arrested on similarly trumped-up charges and who are also still being held in the country, including Johnson Space Center physicist Serkan Golge. 

Golge, a physicist who worked as a senior researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center here in Houston before his arrest in Turkey, is one of about a dozen 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 had arrived in Ankara to visit family a few weeks before the coup attempt. They were unsettled to see the unrest, but when the push to oust Erdogan was quickly put down, the couple decided not to cut their trip short, since none of their family was involved or even particularly political, as we've noted before. 

However, things quickly devolved. As they were preparing to make the trip home to Houston, police showed up. Eventually a second search of the house turned up 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.

After numerous hearings, Golge was convicted of the charges and sentenced to seven years and six months in prison, despite the fact that the "evidence" against him was thin at best, and it was revealed over the course of the trial that this all started because of a tip called in by an in-law who was angry over an inheritance dispute with another member of the family. 

And yet, the U.S. has done next to nothing to help get Golge out. Trump and Erdogan smiled and patted each other on the back at a NATO summit in Brussels last month, but when Turkey failed to free Brunson, a pastor who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years and who was arrested on the same sort of flimsy charges, Trump threatened to place large sanctions on Turkey, and the U.S. Treasury Department issued financial sanctions against two Turkish ministers last week. Congress is also looking at a bill that would keep Turkey from getting loans from international financial organizations.

And it's all on behalf of Brunson. In fact, none of the other Americans detained in Turkey have gotten much attention from the White House or most other arms of the U.S. government. 

There have been some efforts to help Golge. U.S. Rep. Gene Green penned a letter asking the U.S. government to aid Golge once it became clear the Turkish government was not going to release him, but the letter didn't seem to have much effect and now Green is on his way out of office, set to retire at the end of this term.

In 2017 the U.S. consulate also finally gained access to Golge, after months of requests being denied, but again that didn't seem to make much of a difference in the outcome of Golge's case.

Last month, Golge did get a mention in some proposed legislation: the U.S. House and Senate also reached a deal on a defense authorization bill that will ban Turkey from receiving F-35 fighter jets until the U.S. government has assessed the U.S.-Turkey relationship, including the fact that Turkey has been detaining both Brunson and Golge. That's not much of an acknowledgement, folded into a massive piece of legislation, as it is, but it's still the most public protesting the U.S. government has gotten on Golge's case to date. 

But mentioning Golge isn't the same as truly working to get him released. Kubra, who has remained in Turkey since her husband's arrest, sees Golge once a week, and sometimes she gets to take their sons with her and be in the same room with Golge. Her youngest, who was only a few months old when they made the trip to Turkey in 2016, has no memory of a time when his father was not imprisoned.

After Golge was sentenced in February, the University of Houston, which employed him at the JSC, finally had to stop holding his position open for him, since it became clear that the odds of him returning to take up his work on sending astronauts to Mars in the near future were now even slimmer than before.

Meanwhile, Brunson's case continues to get attention. Vice President Mike Pence has become a major advocate for the pastor. No one is speaking up for Golge that way. Kubra has tried to be patient, but acknowledges she's frustrated at this point. "The U.S. government is paying less attention to the other U.S. citizens," she says. "They treat this like Brunson is the only one who is suffering."

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