The heartbreaking story of Turkey sentencing an American NASA scientist to 7.5 years in prison

On Thursday, the Penal Court of Hatay Province of Turkey sentenced NASA scientist and U.S. citizen Serkan Golge to 7.5 years in prison for supposedly providing material support to the organization of Fethullah Gullen. Gullen is a U.S.-based former imam who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds responsible for orchestrating the failed coup on July 15, 2016.

Golge maintained his innocence throughout his 18-month imprisonment and trial. According to his lawyers, not a single trace of evidence of his contacts with Gullen’s organization was presented to the court. The State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Ankara protested the sentence and called upon the Turkish government to end the state of emergency that resulted in arrests and dismissal of tens of thousands of government employees, including many scientists and teachers.

Golge, now age 38, came to the United States from Turkey in 2003. He attended a graduate program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and then did doctoral and postdoctoral studies at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. He became an American citizen in 2010. Starting in 2013, he was as a senior researcher at the University of Houston and worked for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He married his sweetheart, Kubra, who came to the U.S. from Turkey to study English literature. They bought a house in Houston where they lived with their son Mustafa.

In summer 2016, the family went to Turkey to visit relatives in Antakya. As they were leaving the relative’s house to catch a flight to the U.S., the police arrived and took Serkan away. He was placed in an Iskenderun prison, denied visits by family, attorneys, and U.S. consular officers. Charges against him included his teenage studies at the Test Preparation Center and Fatih University in Istanbul (now closed by Erdogan) allegedly affiliated with Gullen, as well as having an account at the Aysa bank (also closed) popular with Gullen supporters. The serial number of a dollar bill found in the house at the time of Golge’s arrest was presented to the judge as Golge’s secret number in the Gllen organization.

A few court hearings that stretched for one year recycled the initial charges. Besides membership in Gullen’s “terrorist” organization, Golge was accused of working for the CIA. During the interrogations, he was repeatedly asked whether he would agree to spy for Turkey in exchange for freedom. He refused. Kubra and Mustafa went back to Houston, but soon returned to Turkey to be closer to Serkan.

With him now sentenced to 7.5 years in a Turkish prison, their American dream has ended.

Golge’s fate was to a large degree decided by the U.S. refusal to extradite Gullen, who Erdogan considers a threat to his grip on power. Although Gullen’s role in the attempted coup was never proved, the witch hunt that followed has put thousands of his real and alleged supporters in prison.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 college professors lost their jobs, while a few hundred have been put on trial.

Recent incursion of Turkish troops into the Kurdish northwest region of Syria further puts Turkey on a collision course with the U.S. and other NATO countries. Syrian Kurds have been U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State, while Erdogan considers them terrorists that provide support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is outlawed in Turkey. On Jan. 24, the Turkish Medical Association issued a statement decrying Turkish military operations in Syria that resulted in multiple deaths and destruction of property. As a result, the leaders of the TMS have been arrested and put on trial.

Turkey’s deplorable treatment of the U.S. citizens and its own people, combined with Turkey’s increasing political alignment with Russia and Iran, leaves little doubt that its assault on human rights will continue. The country that only two years ago was a cultural jewel and a bastion of freedom in the Middle East is rapidly sliding into the abyss of lawlessness and political intolerance.

On Thursday, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., called for sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for arrests and trials of U.S. citizens.



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