How Did a NASA Scientist Get in Turkish Prison?
The author met Serkan Golge in jail when she, too, was falsely accused of working for the CIA. She was freed. He was not. And now he’s about to have his day in court.
On the morning of July 23, 2016, 37-year-old NASA physicist Serkan Golge noticed a man slinking around cars in front of his parents’ home in Antakya, Turkey. He’d arrived almost a month earlier, on vacation in his home country with his wife and two children. On this day, he and his wife planned to fly from Antakya to Istanbul, where they would spend a night in a hotel before catching a flight back to their home in Houston.
Serkan ignored the man outside and continued to prepare his family for their trip. Shortly after, they convened in the driveway for a final goodbye with Serkan’s parents. Suddenly police approached Serkan, arrested him, and took him to a police station nearby.
Eight days earlier, on July 15, 2016, a group within the Turkish Armed Forces had attempted a coup d’état against the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Before the plot failed, more than 200 people were killed.
Kubra Golge, Serkan’s wife, says that they were shocked by the events of July 15, but they didn’t spend much of their vacation watching the news.
Serkan’s arrest came as a total surprise to everyone, especially him. “He was shocked,” she said. “He didn’t understand… none of us did.”
The Turkish government quickly attributed the revolt to Fethullah Gülen, a powerful Islamic cleric who fled Turkey in 1999 for the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and continues to run schools and garner support all over the world. Since the coup attempt, more than 45,000 have been arrested for alleged links to FETO, the acronym for Gülen’s organization, now considered an illegal terrorist group inside Turkey.
The international community has expressed doubt over Gülen’s involvement in the attempted coup. In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Bruno Kahl, head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Agency, said, “Turkey has tried to convince us of this on all kinds of levels. But it has not succeeded in this so far.”
The Turkish government (aided by state-run media) has pushed the narrative that the American government is harboring Gülen and was involved in the coup attempt. As a result, numerous Turkish-American dual citizens were arrested and accused of being CIA agents and members of FETO.
The American government has said little about this, but the latest State Department travel warning cautions ominously: “Delays or denial of consular access to U.S. citizens detained or arrested by security forces, some of whom also possess Turkish citizenship, have become more common.”
Golge was one of these dual citizens. His wife says he got his green card through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program (also known as the green card lottery) and completed his graduate studies in North Carolina and Virginia.
A former coworker (who wishes to remain anonymous) met Golge eight years ago at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (TJNAF) in Newport News, Virginia, where they sat a few cubicles apart. The coworker describes him as a brilliant scientist who designed a new class of device at the facility.
“The use of polarized beams allows scientists to tease out details of the interactions of quarks inside nucleons; TJNAF has lead the world in that field,” said his colleague. “Serkan’s work made it possible to extend that work by opening up an exploration of the difference in measurements made with matter and antimatter.”
On a personal level, the coworker says Golge was always cheerful, always made a good impression, and never made any political statements about Turkey beyond expressing pride in some of Turkey’s achievements.
I met Serkan Golge in a prison in Iskenderun, Turkey, on Aug. 6. I has been picked up by the Turks after escaping from hostage takers in Syria and was accused of working for the CIA—a catch-all denunciation. I told that story in detail in The Daily Beast in November, including a brief description of Golge’s plight.
Golge had recently arrived at the Iskenderun prison after spending two weeks in a detention center enduring daily interrogations and solitary confinement. Coincidentally, his cell was underneath mine, and we had the chance to talk several times before he was moved again.
“It felt like death in that detention center,” he told me.
Golge spoke in accented English as he told me about the prison we were in. He was kind and calm, doing his best to help the new arrival relax. When the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) began, he politely excused himself to pray.
Serkan said the Turkish government was accusing him of being a CIA agent, and that the only evidence they had against him was a single dollar bill they found in his family’s home. Turkey claims that possession of a dollar bill is proof of membership in FETO, a sort of membership card given to Gülen’s loyal followers.
Serkan’s indictment (obtained by The Daily Beast) charges him with being a member of the FETO terror organization. This charge has been imposed against many of those arrested in Turkey since July 15.
“It’s ridiculous,” says his wife Kubra. “I fell in love with Serkan because of his compassion. When there are mosquitos inside, he tries to catch them and put them outside instead of killing him. And they’re saying he’s a terrorist?”
In addition to the dollar bill, the indictment cites Golge’s NASA ID as evidence. It claims that while he says he works for NASA, he is really a CIA agent—an important undercover operative within the FETO organization.
It notes that the source of these allegations was someone in Serkan’s family. Kubra says she learned the informant was a relative miffed over an inheritance dispute.
Golge told me his undergraduate education in Turkey was also at issue with Turkish authorities. He attended Fatih Universitesi in Hatay, one of many schools linked to Fethullah Gülen. The university was one of more than 2,000 schools, dormitories, and universities closed by the Turkish government in the wake of the coup attempt.
Many lawyers were arrested following the coup attempt, and as a result, securing representation for coup cases became nearly impossible.
Initially, the only lawyer Golge’s family was able to secure for him was a young trainee. Two weeks later, she removed herself from his case, citing concerns that she might be arrested as well. Golge has new representation leading up to his trial.
After my conversations with Golge in the Iskenderun prison, he was moved to a large, dormitory-style cell with other men. Later, he was moved into a solitary confinement cell. According to his wife, 11 other men in the Iskenderun prison were moved to solitary confinement around the same time, including judges and a lieutenant who had been dismissed and arrested for alleged FETO links.
Golge’s wife, Kubra, remains in Turkey with their two children. She is under a travel ban and cannot leave the country. She is allowed to visit her husband once a week, speaking to him through a glass partition. Once every two months, she is allowed to see Serkan in an open room, where they are allowed to hug.
Kubra says he is on an unpaid leave from NASA. His first trial is set for April. Because there is little precedent in such cases, his new lawyer isn’t sure what to expect. “He says we will find out together,” Kubra told me.
Recently, Serkan’s six-year-old son was playing with LEGO blocks, building what looked to Kubra like a building with high walls. “If prison is a place for bad people,” she says he asked, “why is dad there?”
“Sometimes,” Kubra replied, “good people are put in prison by accident. But the people who put them there eventually realize their mistake and let them go.”
As the lawyer said, they will find out together.