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Johnson Space Center Scientist Freed From Turkish Prison

After being incarcerated in Turkey for more than three years, Serkan Golge was abruptly released this week.

By Dianna Wray May 31, 2019

After more than three years of being detained in Turkey, Johnson Space Center scientist Serkan Golge was abruptly released this week. 

Back in 2016, Golge, a physicist who moved to the United States from Turkey more than a decade ago and holds dual citizenship in Turkey and the U.S., went home with his wife and two sons for their annual summer visit in Turkey, having saved up all of his vacation from his job as a senior researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center here in Houston to allow for a long visit. 

Shortly before Golge, his wife Kubra and their two young sons were due to head back to Houston, a coup attempt erupted in Turkey against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The coup attempt quickly failed, but in the aftermath Erdogan and his followers blamed Fethullah Gülen—the Islamic cleric, and former political ally of Erdogan, who started a popular modernist movement of Islam in Turkey until his clashes with Erdogan led him to go into self-imposed exile in the United States—and used the uprising 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. 

As we've noted before, both here and in the Houston Press, Golge and his wife saw the unrest around them, but believed that they would be safe since neither they or their families are particularly politically active. However, as they were packing up to go to the airport and commence their trip home to Houston, officers arrived at Golge's parents' house. After detaining him and searching the house multiple times, officers produced a single U.S. dollar bill in a bedroom the couple was not staying in, and declared that this was a sign Golge was a Gülenist and had been involved in the coup attempt. 

What unfolded from there was like a nightmare, his wife Kubra said many times. Golge was arrested, Kubra was told she and her sons could not leave the country, and over the following months, Golge had numerous hearings—held anywhere between every few weeks and every few months.

Finally, after nearly two years of being incarcerated, a trial where most of the “evidence” against him, like the fact that he used a particular bank in Turkey and that he had a NASA ID badge, was ultimately used to convict him of being involved in the uprising. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in February 2018. 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. 

From there, Kubra has worked steadily to try and get Golge's conviction overturned or to at least get him released from prison—he was being held in solitary confinement for much of the past year—all to no avail. The couple had been forced to sell their home in Houston as Golge's incarceration dragged on, and while the University of Houston, the entity that funded his position at NASA's JSC, had kept his position open for him for more than two years, after his sentencing last year they were forced to fill the spot. Late last year a court had reduced his sentence to five years, but little else had been done to help get Golge extricated from this situation. But then, on Wednesday, something changed. 

With no explanation, Golge was taken from his cell and allowed to begin the trip to his parents' home, where Kubra and the children have been living since this odyssey started nearly three years ago.  

Golge's release came only hours after a phone conversation between President Donald Trump and Erdogan. The report on the call given to White House journalists did not show any discussion of Golge's case, according to the New York Times, but shortly afterward Golge was released and was making his way to Hatay, his wife confirmed. There's no still no word on if or when he and his family, who are all U.S. citizens, will be allowed to return to the United States, although his friends are already hoping that will occur sooner rather than later. For now, Golge is still not permitted to leave Turkey. 

Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokeswoman, declined to discuss why he was released, but told reporters that "it was the right thing to do," according to NBC. "We will continue to provide all appropriate consular services to Mr. Golge, including making sure he can return home as soon as possible,” Ortagus said.

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