Scientist, family back in U.S. after 4 years held in Turkey

NASA scientist Serkan Golge sits in his apartment in Hatay, Turkey, in September.
(The New York Times/Mauricio Lima)
NASA scientist Serkan Golge sits in his apartment in Hatay, Turkey, in September.
(The New York Times/Mauricio Lima)

ISTANBUL -- An American NASA scientist returned with his family to the United States early Tuesday morning after nearly four years of imprisonment and house arrest in Turkey, and more than seven months after President Donald Trump said he had secured an agreement for his release.

The scientist, Serkan Golge, arrived in Washington on a commercial flight shortly after midnight, ending a tortuous journey for him and his family, who had become caught up in increasingly fraught Turkish-American relations.

Trump's public dealings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have been a roller coaster from warm expressions of friendship to explosive threats on Twitter to ruin the Turkish economy.

At a White House briefing in November with Erdogan, Trump announced that Golge would be heading home and personally thanked his Turkish counterpart for releasing Golge from detention, though Gogle remained under judicial control for several more months.

"That was a very nice tribute," Trump said in November. "He'll be coming back at some point in the not too distant future. That's very good news for the United States and also very good news for Turkey."

Erdogan did not mention Golge in his comments at that news briefing.

Golge's case, along with those of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was held for two years, and three Turkish employees of U.S. consulates, one of whom was sentenced to more than eight years in prison in June, have been seen by U.S. and European officials as a form of hostage-taking for leverage.

Erdogan's government has wanted several court cases in the United States against Turkish officials, potentially implicating Erdogan and his family, to be dropped. One such case, involving a state-owned bank accused of helping Iran evade sanctions, is still pending.

Ties between the United States and Turkey, ostensibly NATO allies, have been frayed since an attempted coup against Erdogan in July 2016. Among those involved in the coup were followers of a U.S.-based Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government describes as the main instigator, and it has demanded his extradition, so far to no avail.

The relationship reached a new low in October, with Erdogan's invasion of northeastern Syria, an offensive against U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces that risked direct conflict with U.S. troops and threatened to undermine the fight against the Islamic State.

Golge was one of up to 20 U.S. citizens who have been imprisoned or prevented from leaving the country in a crackdown by the Turkish government after the failed coup. More than 100,000 people in total were detained, some for direct involvement in the coup but many more on the flimsiest evidence, accused of involvement with Gulen's movement.

Golge, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen, holds a Ph.D. in physics from Old Dominion University. He lived near Houston and had worked on preparations for NASA's Mars mission.

He was detained in July 2016 while visiting his parents in southern Turkey and was accused of being a member of the Gulen movement -- he insists he is not -- which the government calls a terrorist organization.

The only evidence of that association that was produced at his trial was that he had held an account at Bank Asya, which was linked to the movement, and that a $1 bill was found in his parents' house, supposedly a secret sign of membership.

Golge's wife, Kubra, and his two children, all U.S. citizens, were also barred from leaving Turkey.

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