Written by Carlotta Gall
An American former NASA scientist sentenced in Turkey to over seven years in prison on terrorism charges was suddenly freed Wednesday evening, without explanation, hours after a phone call between the presidents of Turkey and the United States.
The scientist, Serkan Golge, 39, is a Turkish-American citizen who was arrested while on vacation visiting his family in southern Turkey in 2016, in the aftermath of a coup attempt that failed to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Golge’s wife, Kubra Golge, confirmed by telephone that he had just walked free from prison and was heading back with his parents to their home in the southern city of Hatay.
“I just talked to him on the phone. He is going back to his family,” she said. “He was shocked.”
“He said ‘I am very thankful I am out of prison. I am very happy.’ And I cried,” she said.
President Donald Trump and Erdogan spoke by telephone on Wednesday and discussed “a number of bilateral issues,” such as trade and tariffs, according to a White House deputy press secretary, Judd Deere. The official White House description of the call did not mention Golge.
A readout sent to journalists by a Turkish official in Erdogan’s administration also did not mention Golge. It said the presidents discussed a range of issues, including Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which Washington opposes.
Turkey detained more than a dozen U.S. citizens, including Golge, as well as three Turkish employees of American consulates, in a crackdown after the failed coup — arrests that have become a major point of conflict between the two countries. U.S. officials have accused Turkey of using the detainees as leverage in the nations’ fraught security and strategic relationship.
Relations have been increasingly strained in recent months, and U.S. measures contributed to Turkey’s economic crisis last summer. In August, Trump, infuriated at Turkish delays in releasing American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was also detained on terrorism charges, imposed new tariffs on Turkish steel, triggering a run on the Turkish lira. Brunson was released in October.
Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system also remains a huge source of disagreement. If the system is delivered as planned, in July, it would trigger U.S. sanctions against Turkey and probably cause the United States to stop its sale of the F-35 fighter jet to the Turkish military.
There have been signs of easing tensions in recent weeks as officials continue negotiations. In the Turkish description of the call Wednesday, Erdogan welcomed the recent decision by the Trump administration to eliminate the additional tariffs on Turkish steel. The two leaders agreed to meet on the margins of the coming Group of 20 summit meeting in Japan, the Turkish readout said.
Golge was detained in summer 2016, as he was leaving for the airport to return home to Houston after a family vacation. He was accused of being a member of the Fethullah Gulen movement, which Erdogan has said instigated the failed coup.
Some 70,000 people remain imprisoned in the widespread, three-year crackdown after the attempted coup, while another 150,000 public employees — academics, judges, and police and military officers — have been purged from their jobs. While those imprisoned include people who were involved in the coup, Mr. Erdogan has used the crackdown to move against political opponents and dissidents as well. Others, uninvolved in the coup or in political dissent, have also been swept up in the mass arrests.
Golge was convicted in February 2018 and sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison, which was later reduced to five years by an appeals court. Golge, and their two children, ages 7 and 19 months at the time, all U.S. citizens, were barred from leaving the country.
Golge, his lawyers and U.S. officials have called the accusations against him baseless and his imprisonment unjust. Among the evidence prosecutors produced at his trial was the fact that he banked with Bank Asya, an institution linked to the Gulen movement, and a single dollar bill, supposedly a sign of membership in the movement, which the police said they found in his parent’s home.