Turkish-American NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, 40, who returned with his family to the United States last month after nearly four years of imprisonment and house arrest in Turkey, talked to Hollie McKay of Fox News about his ordeal.
“We may have a lot of issues [in the US], but we are so much better compared to most other countries. People here embrace you for your differences; they accept you for who you are,” he told Fox News this week. “What I missed most was that freedom of being able to walk around without being judged. And the laws here typically protect you from the sort of thing that happened to me in Turkey.”
While NASA severed employment ties with him more than two years ago as his case was dragged through the Turkish judicial system, Gölge told Fox News this week that his employment was reinstated. He returned to his position as a research scientist for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the University of Houston on Monday.
“It’s going great, just great,” Gölge said. “Many of my colleagues knew I was being used as a bargaining chip, they supported me, and I am very grateful to them for standing by me.”
Gölge’s wife, Kübra, and their sons – ages 4 and 10 – also were prohibited from leaving their home country after the ordeal began almost four years ago. But they have returned to Houston, too. Still, making up for the lost time is proving to be particularly challenging, Gölge said.
“My youngest son was just a baby; he didn’t know me. Sometimes my wife would bring him to jail, but he didn’t understand what was going on. I’ve devoted as much time as I can to my children now, they are getting used to me,” he said.
“And the older one, he doesn’t understand why this all happened to me and to us, why this horrible thing happened in Turkey and why the government just started randomly arresting people. I was one of those innocent people.”
Gölge’s calamity began a week after a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016. He had taken his family on vacation to see relatives in Turkey but was suddenly arrested. He was told police had received an anonymous tip that he was a CIA operative and part of the faith-based Gülen movement, inspired by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.
The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding the attempted coup of July 15, 2016 and labels it as a “terrorist organization.” The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity. Following the allegations, Gülen called on the Turkish government to allow for an international investigation. The US government has said there is insufficient evidence to prove involvement.
In the crackdown that followed, more than 150,000 public servants were removed from their jobs, over 500,000 people have been investigated on terrorism charges and more than 90,000 have been arrested.
“It was like a horror movie,” Gölge recalled. “They found a U.S. $1 in my belongings and used that as proof I was a terrorist. They [the authorities] were arresting anyone they found with $1 because they thought it was a sign of being part of the Gülen movement. How is this terrorism? I have always been a law-abiding citizen; I have never even gotten a parking ticket. Then, all of a sudden, I am a terrorist?”
At first, Gölge, who was sent to prison in Iskenderun, was stuffed into an overcrowded cell. A month later, he was relocated to solitary confinement and informed that he was facing life behind bars.
Typically, he said, isolation cells were reserved for inmates who required disciplinary actions for violating the rules. But for Gölge, it became his home for three years.
“It was like they wanted to break me psychologically, so I would admit to something I did not do,” he said. “It took about 16 months, and then I got used to it.”
Gölge said he tried to get through these lonely days and fight off the depression by practicing meditation – reflecting on how he could be a better person – and exercising by doing pushups. After several months Gölge said he was permitted to borrow books from the library and receive some pre-approved reading materials from his family, although anything related to science or his field of expertise was banned.
“It was 23 hours a day alone, just one hour of sunlight,” Gölge underscored. “It wasn’t easy, especially knowing that I had done nothing wrong.”
The routine interrogations – which could go on for hours and happen at any time from early dusk to the dead of night – were especially wrenching.
“That was one of the harshest parts, being questioned by different police six or seven times, which they aren’t supposed to do,” Gölge said. “They threatened that if I didn’t give them names of Gülen members, I would stay there a long time. I kept telling them I had no names to give, I wasn’t a spy or a terrorist, I am just a scientist.”
After a series of high-level talks between Washington and Ankara, including a push by President Donald Trump, charges against Gölge were steadily reduced and he was allowed out of solitary confinement last May. He was put on a type of “home custody,” which entailed frequent law enforcement check-ins and routinely being tailed by police.
Just hours before a Trump/Erdoğan meeting in November of last year, his ankle bracelet was removed as a “gesture” by the Turkish leadership.
Gölge said that while US State Department officials were not permitted to visit him during his first year of incarceration because Turkey does not recognize his dual citizenship, they eventually were able to press for his release.
“Since my release, everyone has called me. I really have had the full support of the U.S. government,” Gölge said. “They looked at all the evidence, and they realized the Turkish government was holding me for no good reason.”
As for the accusation, the Gölge family learned it was from a disgruntled relative in Turkey, upset over a family land matter involving Gölge’s sister. The physicist said he has not had contact with the family member but harbors no ill will, stressing that the responsibility is authorities’ to do due diligence.
“The burden is on the public prosecutor, the judge and the police officers to make a reasonable assessment. Anyone can make a call and accuse someone of something, and the way it is now, it can take you years to clear your name,” Gölge said. “People do crazy things, and it is up to the authorities to determine right from wrong, but they aren’t doing that in Turkey. They didn’t even go to the tipster to question them until more than a year later.”
The family informant later confessed to being unsure the allegations he leveled against Gölge were even real. Yet, it still took several more years of fighting to achieve freedom.
For now, Gölge’s appeal is still sitting in Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals. But he has lived in the United States since 2002 and said he has no intention of returning to Turkey soon.
Last week, Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the European Union and its member states calling on them to “address the sharp decline in respect for fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey and to urge the government to carry out genuine reforms.”
“Many of Turkey’s prisons are overcrowded, with tens of thousands of individuals on remand or convicted of terrorism-related charges,” the letter stated. “Although a law adopted in April 2020 allowed for the early and conditional release of up to 90,000 prisoners in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it excluded the thousands of inmates convicted on trump-up terrorism charges, including journalists, politicians, rights defenders and people held in pre-trial detention.”
And while Gölge is still recovering from a series of stress-induced stomach ulcers, his spirits are high, and he feels good about the future.
“I’m very optimistic about Turkey’s future,” he added. “I believe it really will be a mature democracy one day.”