NASA scientist imprisoned in Turkey ordered to remain behind bars

The town of Antakya, in southern Turkey, where NASA scientist Serkan Golge has been kept in prison for the past nine months (Photo by Chanilim714/Wikimedia Commons)

ANTAKYA, Turkey — There was a time when a typical Monday afternoon for Serkan Golge entailed calculating the effects of space radiation on the human crew that will travel to Mars for two years.

But on Monday, the Turkish-American who until last year worked as a scientist at NASA, stood in front of three judges — one of them sleeping — to defend himself against a charge that he belongs to an armed terrorist organization.

The 37-year-old has been imprisoned for the last 9 months, mostly under solitary confinement. The strongest evidence against him is a one dollar bill.

“None of this evidence indicates a crime,” Golge said. “I demand to be released.”

It’s not only Golge seeking justice in Turkish courts, but also imprisoned journalists, diplomats and political party leaders. The number of people imprisoned in post-coup prosecutions exceeds 47,000.

Last Sunday’s historic referendum, which granted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more presidential powers, could further complicate their fates.

“One of the President’s priorities is to ensure greater control of the courts,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch. Mentioning the judiciary-related amendments approved in the referendum, which will take effect immediately, she says this: “There will be less chance than ever of courts in Turkey being able to take decisions that are independent of the executive and based on the merits of the case and the evidence presented rather than on political calculations.”

Last summer, Golge was detained when he was leaving his family’s home in Hatay, southern Turkey. It was the final day of a one-month vacation to visit his family with his wife and two children. The police received a tip-off that accused Golge of working with the CIA and being a secret member of what the government calls “FETO,” the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization.

The only evidence against Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American, seems to be a $1 bill. (Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge)
The only evidence against Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American, seems to be a $1 bill. (Photo courtesy of Kubra Golge)

The Turkish government believes this organization, otherwise known as the religious Gulen movement, orchestrated the coup attempt against Erdogan last July. Golge was sent to prison in August although the only evidence against him was a one-dollar bill.

The government holds that each one dollar bill is evidence for membership, because its leader, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, gave blessed one-dollar bills to its followers (There are 11.7 billion dollar bills in the world).

Monday’s hearing was Gölge’s first chance to defend himself after his imprisonment in August.

His dark-gray suit was slightly large for his thin frame. He lost 25 pounds in prison. Kubra, his wife, was looking longingly at her husband behind a row of soldiers. She used to pick fresh mint for him from their Houston backyard, now she’s the family’s main caregiver. Due to emergency law visitation regulations, Golge’s extended family — his aunt, uncle and cousin were seeing him for the first time since the night he was detained.

As he spoke, one of the judges leaned back into his big, black chair and took a nap. Some 25 people sat in the courtroom.

During the trial, Golge’s lawyer accused Turkish police officers of propositioning Golge to be a spy for the Turkish state. To prove that he is not a terrorist, Golge had to defend himself against evidence like “entering and exiting from Istanbul Atatürk Airport several times.”

His defense as a dual citizen?

“This is not a crime. In last 13 years, I came to Turkey 14 times. How many times should I have come?”

Additionally, Serkan’s “confiscated” NASA ID card was used as evidence.

Serkan’s defense, as a NASA employee?

“Just as you have a judiciary ID, I have a NASA ID,” he said.

Serkan also argued that having a bank account or studying at a university which were both later closed because of their Gulen links are not crimes. He actually studied at the university with a state scholarship.

While the napping judge shifted in his chair, the prosecutor drew geometrical figures on the white papers in front of him.

Last month, The Council of Judges and Prosecutors (CJP) suspended three judges who had ordered the release of 21 journalists who were jailed after the coup attempt.

One of the constitutional changes approved in the referendum will take effect in one month and will grant President Erdoğan more authority in appointments to this council. CJP oversees the appointment, promotion, transfer or dismissal of judges and prosecutors.

“Getting control over this body thus means getting control over judges and public prosecutors,” says the European Commission for Democracy through Law, “especially in a country where the dismissal of judges has become frequent and where transfers of judges are a common practice.” Indeed, after the coup attempt around 4,000 judges and prosecutors, almost one fourth has been purged.

Back at Golge’s trial, the three judges — all of them awake this time — deliberated a verdict among themselves, whispering to each other.

“Continuation of imprisonment,” they issued in seconds.

Serkan’s soft face was shadowed with question marks. His two children were at home waiting for answers to questions they could barely even understand. When is their father coming back? When will they play outside in their Houston backyard?

In a matter of seconds, soldiers took his arms to return him to his one-person cell.

“How can this happen?” said his wife, Kubra, as she burst into tears. “How can they send an innocent man behind bars?”

Serkan’s next trial will be on May 26. The fate of the Turkish judiciary may not be known until much later.