Serkan Golge, a NASA scientist who was working on getting astronauts to Mars, has been held in Turkey for more than a year now.
Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge
Before Serkan Golge left Old Dominion University in Virginia to start his job at the Johnson Space Center in 2013, he gave his friend and colleague Alicia Hofler a map of Turkey as a gift, with the names of the cities spelled out in Turkish. Golge had circled Antakya, his hometown, and written next to it that this is where he is from.
“He was always saying that if I wanted to come visit, he would tour me there. He’s always been so proud of his country,” Hofler says. “He loves Turkey but he has never been a political person. It was shocking to me when he got arrested, because that doesn’t make sense for him to be involved in all of that.”
Now, Golge, a 38-year-old NASA scientist, has been held in a Turkish jail for more than a year on charges that the physicist was involved in an attempt to overthrow the Turkish government, an attempt that has ultimately amounted to being linked to a single U.S. dollar bill. On Thursday, at yet another hearing, Golge was once again denied bail.
Golge, who is employed as a senior researcher at Johnson Space Center, has been held in Turkey since last summer, with the bulk of that time spent in solitary confinement, because of vague accusations that Golge was involved in the attempt to depose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016.
Golge and his wife, Kubra, both Turkish-American dual citizens, had gone home with their two young sons to visit their family in Turkey in June 2016. Both were rattled by the coup attempt, the first either had experienced (coups are commonplace in Turkey’s relatively short history as a country, but there hadn’t been a serious one since the early 1980s), but they had assumed they were safe since they were not involved in Turkish politics in general or the failed push to get Erdogan out of power, as we noted in our August cover story.
However, as they were preparing to embark on the trip back home to Houston, police detained Golge and ultimately leveled a slew of accusations against him, including contentions that he was an adherent of Fethullah Gulen — the Islamic cleric who started a popular modernist movement of Islam in Turkey, who former political ally Erdogan has subsequently blamed for the coup — and that Golge was a spy for the CIA.
Since then, Kubra and their sons have been stuck in Turkey while Golge has remained imprisoned, one of about seven American citizens who have been swept up and arrested along with thousands of Turkish citizens in the sweeps Erdogan’s government has been making. (Erdogan and officials in his government claim that the more than 40,000 who have been arrested since July 2016 are all people with clear ties to the uprising — which was also weirdly handled, to the point that many believe Erdogan allowed the coup to happen so he could neutralize various political opponents.)
Ultimately, it came out that a disgruntled relative by marriage had called in the allegations against Golge, and many of the charges have since been dropped. But the process has been slow. The first hearings didn’t occur until this spring.
Since then there has been a pattern in which a few hearings will be held in fairly rapid succession (every two to three weeks, which is fast for the backed-up Turkish judicial system). During the various hearings, judges have been looking into suspicions raised by Turkish prosecutors based on Golge’s travel to Turkey over the past decade (he’s been a student in the United States and thus traveled to Turkey to see his family regularly for the past ten years), his cell phone records, a smartphone application commonly used by members of the attempted coup that Golge did not have on his phone, and, of course, that single American dollar bill, which many believe is a symbol of allegiance to Gulen.
None of it has stuck, but at each hearing the judges — who many believe are under political pressure not to let any of those accused of being a part of the coup off the hook, particularly people like Golge who have strong ties to the United States — have declined to release Golge or even grant him release on bail, and have instead simply ordered another hearing for October 13 to look at some other aspect of the case.
Meanwhile, Golge’s friends and colleagues in the United States have tried to publicize his case. The Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups set up specifically to try to aid any researchers who are caught up in political maelstroms like the one in Turkey have been lobbying various U.S. officials for months to try to get the United States to step in and help Golge, since both he and Kubra hold U.S. passports.
The Houston Press has contacted various elected representatives, as we’ve previously reported, to see what they are doing to help Golge. U.S. Representative Gene Green wrote a letter pushing for Golge’s release, but nobody else has stepped in. The White House, under both former president Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, has also stayed silent on this issue.
Hofler, who became friends with Golge when they were working on their dissertations on overlapping topics and who has stayed in touch with Golge since he moved to NASA, searches the Internet regularly for reports on the case. Holfer also keeps in touch with Kubra to find out what is going on. She says she keeps hoping to hear Golge has finally been released.
“Even a year on I just cannot believe this is still going on. It was surreal when it started and each time I keep thinking he is going to be out now,” Hofler says. “I wrote to his NASA account thinking he would be able to access those emails, before I realized that he wouldn’t. I keep thinking I will send him a letter, but then I don’t do it because I think he won’t get it, that he’ll surely be released before it could ever get there. But that hasn’t happened.”