ISTANBUL, TURKEY—Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American research scientist at NASA in Houston, Texas, was sentenced to 7.5 years in a Turkish prison Thursday on terrorism charges. The verdict, which has been condemned by the U.S. government, has put his career on hold and left his family and friends reeling. “I feel like this cannot be real,” his wife Kubra Golge, who was inside the courtroom when her husband’s verdict was read, tells Science.
At a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State said the United States is “deeply concerned” by Golge’s conviction, which came “without credible evidence.” The spokesperson said the U.S. government would continue to follow his case closely. A spokesperson for Turkey’s foreign ministry dismissed the criticism in a statement posted to its website and said the court’s decision must be respected.
Golge, a dual citizen who had been studying the effects of radiation on astronauts, was swept up in a crackdown that followed Turkey’s 2016 failed military coup. While visiting family in southern Turkey weeks after the putsch attempt, police showed up to his parents’ home and arrested him in front of his wife and children. According to Golge’s wife, a distant relative who was angered over an inheritance dispute told police Golge was a spy and supporter of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic cleric who Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup.
Golge was charged with membership of a terrorist organization, which he denied. Prosecutors presented a $1 bill found in Golge’s home as evidence; they also said he held an account at a bank owned by Gülen supporters and attended a Gülen-linked university. “It seemed [the court] had already decided” before the case began, says Kubra Golge, who recently sold the couple’s home in Houston and has been living with her family in southern Turkey to be near the prison where her husband has been held. “One of the judges took a nap during the trial,” she says.
Golge will appeal, his wife says, but he faces a lengthy process in Turkey’s appeals court, where terrorism cases like his take on average 6 months to 1 year. If convicted again, he will be able to take his case to Turkey’s Supreme Court and later to the European Court of Human Rights.
Thursday’s verdict came amid increasingly tense Turkish-American relations. In mid-January, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a new U.S. strategy in Syria that involved an open-ended presence of troops in the country and continued partnership with Syrian-Kurdish rebels. Turkey considers the rebels terrorists and a security threat along its southern border. Following Tillerson’s announcement, Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, launched a military operation to attack Washington, D.C.’s Syrian allies.
Turkey has also been angered by the failure of the United States to extradite Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has suggested U.S. citizens will not be released unless the cleric is handed over to Turkey; the United States has said the decision to extradite Gülen must be made by U.S. courts. Golge’s supporters believe he may be used as a bargaining chip.
Scores of Turkish scientists and academics are in prison or have lost their job in the postcoup crackdown and observers say a once thriving scientific community is now in danger.