US Secretary of State visits Turkey amid rising tensions between the two countries

Kubra Golge (pictured) says her husband, Serkan, has been held on bogus charges by the Turkish government. (Lauren Bohn/GroundTruth)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives here today, it will mark a particularly difficult conclusion to what was a challenging journey through the Middle East this week.

Tillerson comes at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and its NATO ally, Turkey, and there are many thorny issues on the agenda.

But one of them is the escalating erosion of human rights under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the case of Serkan Golge, a Turkish-U.S. dual citizen and renowned research scientist at NASA. Last week, Golge was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison on what critics call trumped-up charges of membership in a terrorist organization.

Human rights activists hope Tillerson will address Golge’s sentence. At a press briefing in Washington, D.C., last week, a spokesperson for the Department of State said the United States is “deeply concerned” by Golge’s conviction, which came “without credible evidence.”

There’s a dramatic backstory to this case. A little over a year and a half ago, Golge was working with NASA studying the effects of space radiation on humans in advance of an eventual mission to Mars. He spent most weekends tending to his beloved lawn in Houston, Texas, and roaming the aisles of Target with his wife, Kubra, and their son, Mostafa.

Today, he’s languishing behind Turkish bars, accused of being an enemy of the state.

“We’re in a horror movie with no end in sight,” said Kubra through tears at his trial.

Golge’s “Kafkaesque” ordeal

The 37-year-old physicist has been imprisoned since August 2016, mostly under solitary confinement, accused of being a member of what the Turkish government calls FETO, the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization. The government believes the organization, otherwise known as the Gülen movement, orchestrated the coup attempt against Erdoğan last July. The leader of the movement, cleric Fethullah Gülen, was once a close ally of Erdoğan and now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has called on the U.S. to extradite the cleric.

Last year, Serkan Golge outlined his hand on a piece of paper and sent it to Kubra for her and the children to do the same. “It’s our only way of touching each other,” he explained. “We are all prisoners right now.”

Golge was detained last July while leaving his family’s home in southern Turkey after an annual one-month vacation with his wife and two children. The police received information from an informant accusing Golge of working with the CIA and being a secret member of FETO. Almost a year later, Kubra learned that informant was a relative by marriage who is said to have inheritance disputes with Golge’s family.

Upon searching his family’s home, police said they found the only evidence in the case against him: a $1 bill. The government holds that this is evidence of FETO membership. Gülen allegedly gave blessed $1 bills to its followers. There are 11.7 billion $1 bills in the world.

Golge denies being a Gülenist and having anything to do with the coup attempt. He is one of almost 50,000 people imprisoned in the aftermath of the coup, including journalists, diplomats, and human rights activists. Last December, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said that 160,000 people have been detained in “FETO operations.”

Golge first traveled to the United States in 2003 to pursue a Ph.D. in physics at Virginia’s Old Dominion University. Golge, who graduated in 2010 and was granted American citizenship in the same year, has been working for NASA as a senior research scientist since 2013. He has published several articles in prestigious science publications, including the Journal of Applied Physics.

Tillerson’s visit

Golge’s sentencing comes at a very tense time for U.S.-Turkey relations, if not a major breakdown between the two NATO allies. In addition to Gülen’s self-imposed exile in the U.S., Turkey has been critical of Washington’s support of the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, in its war against Islamic State militants in Syria. Ankara considers the YPG terrorists linked to a longtime Kurdish insurgency in its own country. Kurds, a disenfranchised ethnic minority, make up nearly 20 percent of Turkey’s population. Tillerson’s stop in Ankara shows how “serious this matter is,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Feb. 13, referring to increasingly divergent — if not opposing — Turkish and U.S. interests in Syria. “This is one of the areas of deep, deep concern on the part of the administration and the U.S. government,” Nauert told reporters.

Speaking in Turkish parliament on the same day, President Erdoğan lambasted the U.S.’s continued cooperation with the YPG and a senior U.S. military official who vowed to respond to any Turkish attack in Manbij, which Turkey sees as its next Syrian target against YPG forces.

“It is clear that those who say, ‘We will respond aggressively if you hit us’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap,” Erdoğan told his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies in parliament. “We will destroy every terrorist we have seen, starting with the ones standing by their side,” he said. “They will understand that it is better for them to not to stand alongside the terrorists.”

But in Erdogan’s Turkey, it’s increasingly difficult to figure out who is and isn’t a terrorist.

For Turks like Kubra, home has become a complicated concept. She has been forced to sell their home in Houston and raise their two sons in a country that feels increasingly unlike their own.

When we first met with her in her husband’s hometown a year and a half ago, she refused to have her photo taken for fear of being identified. Now, she sits for photographs — a quiet acceptance of her relegated, if not outcast, status in post-coup attempt Turkey.

“There is no alternative but to accept the way things are,” she says, still reluctant to openly criticize the government.

Kubra says she often recalls how two years ago — well before “the nightmare” began — their son Mustafa was playing Legos at their Houston home. In building a city out of colorful blocks, he designated one of the sections as a jail. He then asked Kubra why people are put there.

“Bad people are but in there,” she responded, unsure how to distill the complexity of his question.

Three years later, Mostafa wonders why his father, not a bad person, will remain in prison for the next 7.5 years.

Kubra still hasn’t come up with an answer.

Lauren Bohn and Turkish journalist Tugba Tekerek have been following Golge’s case for the past year and a half. Read their prior coverage.