A former NASA scientist jailed in Turkey was unexpectedly allowed to walk free on Wednesday evening, after spending almost 3 years behind bars. The release came just hours after a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen who studied the effects of radiation on astronauts at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, was arrested on terrorism charges while visiting family in Turkey’s southern province of Hatay in the summer of 2016. Swept up in a crackdown that followed a failed military coup, Golge was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in February 2018. The sentence was later reduced to 5 years by an appeals court.
“I’m very happy. I do not know what to say,” Kubra Golge, his wife, tells Science from northwest Turkey, where she is recovering from a recent surgery. She says she was able to speak by phone to her husband, who she says is also in shock after he being released in Hatay. “It was a surprise,” she says. But her husband is banned from travel, Kubra Golge adds, and can’t leave Turkey yet.
Trump, in remarks this morning before he boarded Marine One, said Golge would “pretty soon” be able to leave the country. “They released this prisoner, hostage—whatever you want to call him,” he said. “And I just want to thank President Erdoğan. We dealt with that, and he was—it was great.”
Relations between Turkey and the United States—both members of NATO—have soured in recent years over a number of security issues. Turkish authorities have been angered by Washington, D.C.’s support for Kurdish rebels in Syria and failure to extradite Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric whom Turkey accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt. Recently, Turkey’s plans to acquire an S-400 defense system from Russia have also been a major contention between the two allies.
U.S. officials and human rights groups have accused Turkish authorities of using U.S. prisoners such as Golge and jailed consular staff as political bargaining chips. “Nobody ever doubted that he was innocent, not in this country nor in Turkey. He was a hostage in the negotiations for Gülen’s extradition,” says Eugene Chudnovsky, a co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists in Silver Spring, Maryland, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting scientists’ human rights.
The two presidents spoke by phone on Wednesday. A readout of the conversation sent to journalists by a spokesperson for the Turkish president says the phone call “related to a range of bilateral and regional issues,” but made no mention of Golge. Trump did not go into details of the release this morning either. “One can wonder what was promised that made Erdoğan order Serkan’s release,” Chudnovsky says.
Golge’s detention was widely condemned as unjust, and U.S. officials said his conviction on terrorism charges was “without credible evidence.” According to his wife, a disgruntled relative who was angered over an inheritance dispute told police Golge was a spy for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and supporter of Gülen. In court, the relative said he had no evidence to back his accusation. Prosecutors argued that a $1 bill found at Golge’s parents home was proof that he was a member of Gülen’s movement.
After his arrest, Golge’s career at NASA came to an abrupt halt. His wife says she was forced to sell their home in Houston and raise her two children in their father’s absence. Back in the United States, members of the scientific community continued to press for Golge’s release.
“I was thrilled but afraid to believe [he was released]. Knowing it is real makes me so truly happy,” says Alicia Hofler, a former colleague of Golge’s and friend in Newport News, Virginia, who sought to bring media attention to his case. “Now, I want him and his family to safely return the U.S. as soon as possible.”