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Johnson Space Center Scientist, Detained for Years in Turkey, Is Back on U.S. Soil

Former NASA physicist Serkan Golge and his family have finally been allowed to leave Turkey.

By Dianna Wray July 2, 2020

After four years of detainment in Turkey, Serkan Golge, his wife, and their two sons are finally back in the United States. 

It had started to seem like this might never happen. 

Back in 2016, Golge, a physicist who immigrated 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 with family.

Everything was normal, until it abruptly wasn't. Shortly before Golge, his wife Kubra, and their two children, all American citizens, were due to head back to Houston, a coup attempt erupted in Turkey against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as previously reported here by us and the Houston Press. 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. They 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. (This despite the fact that Gülen himself has repeatedly denied any involvement in the uprising.)

Golge and his wife had seen the unrest around them, but believed that they would be safe since neither they or their families were particularly politically active. However, as they were packing up to go to the airport and commence their trip home to Houston in June 2016, 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. (His wife, Kubra, has previously told us that they found out over the course of the trial that her husband was accused of being a Gülenist by a distant family member who was fighting with Golge's brother-in-law over some property.)

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. Meanwhile, he was kept imprisoned, allowed no outside-reading material, and was regularly held in solitary confinement.

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. 

And then last year, as we've previously reported, Golge was abruptly released and allowed to be reunited with his family albeit under house arrest in Turkey. President Donald Trump stated last November that he had secured Golge's full release from Turkey through his dealings with Erdogan, but Golge and his family remained in Turkey, unable to return to the United States. Until this week, that is, when the family took a commercial flight and landed on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., as the New York Times reported and Kubra confirmed.

NASA and UH held Golge's position for him (he was working on getting astronauts to Mars) through more than two years of his ordeal, but finally had to let it become open again after the 2018 trial and sentence. The family was also forced to put their Houston home on the market since they had no income coming in while Golge was in prison. It's unclear what the future holds for the family, and whether they will return to the life they had built here in Houston, but they are doing well and are back in Houston now, Kubra says.

There were many times that it seemed like that might not be the way this story played out. But it has, so as for what's next? Anything is possible. 

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