What really happened with Turkey's release of U.S. scientist Serkan Gölge?

On the day that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced an ambiguous "judicial reform" package, Serkan Gölge, who had been convicted of being a member of what Ankara calls "FETÖ" (Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation), was quietly released.

At the time, Gölge's case was in Turkey's Supreme Court, and his lawyers hadn't even requested his release. However, the former NASA employee,  who couldn't comprehend why he was arrested and sentenced, was released, again, before he could understand why.

Let's briefly review Gölge's case.

Gölge was a NASA employee and experienced the misfortune of being on vacation in Turkey during the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. He's also an American citizen. He was detained and accused of being a spy by an anonymous witness who mistook Gölge's NASA ID for a CIA ID card. Because he had a dollar in his wallet, Gölge was arrested and accused of being a member of the Gülen movement, which Ankara accuses of orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt and designates a terrorist organisation. 

The American dollar that Gölge, as someone who lives and works in the United States, had in his pocket is the most critical pillar in the ruling against him; at the time, everyone who had an American dollar was treated as a terrorist.

The reason for this, it was alleged then, was that Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülen movement, had given members of his movement dollar bills with serial numbers beginning with the letter "F." It was claimed that this is how members of the movement got in touch with each other.

As a result, Gölge was tried in the Hatay 2nd High Criminal Court, and the prosecutor requested a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. In the final hearing on February 8, 2018, Gölge was sentenced to seven years and six months for "being a member of an armed terrorist organisation." After his appeal, Gölge's charge was dropped to "aiding a terrorist organisation," and his sentence reduced to five years.

In the meantime, Gölge lost his job at NASA. Since then, the U.S. government has demanded the release of Gölge, who had been convicted under false accusations.

Let's get to how Gölge was released. The events unfolded in the following way according to information Ahval obtained from reliable sources in Istanbul.

Unaware of what was to come, Gölge was counting down the days in prison. That day, Erdoğan was scheduled to speak on the phone with U.S. President Donald Trump. Ahead of the meeting, Erdoğan's advisors thought of a gesture that would please Trump. The only hope among Erdoğan's administration for Turkish-U.S. relations, which have been strained since the S-400 dilemma, is that Trump would treat them with understanding. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also expecting the same treatment Trump on the issue.

When the advisors were thinking about what to do, they thought of Gölge and said, "let's release Gölge." Erdoğan then accepted this and provided instructions. There's no court or petition involved.

A phone call was then made to the prison, and the guards went to Serkan Gölge's cell and told him to get his belongings together and that he was being released. Gölge quickly gathered his belongings, was placed in a car, and released in the sticks a few kilometres away from Hatay in southern Turkey. It was similar to how the mafia releases hostages after abducting them and getting ransom money.

Gölge had no cell phone. He started walking until he reached a village. He told the villagers his situation, and they found a cell phone and successfully contacted his family. His parents came in a hurry to take their son home.

This is a striking example of how arbitrary and disorderly the judicial system in Turkey has become. This instance resembles the type of decay that we might come across in Central Asian republics and Arab sheikdoms. This is also a painful example of how the government of the Turkish Republic has devolved into the domain of one individual.

I hope that someone from the Ministry of Justice or the Palace will come out and say the story is a lie. The fact that President Trump thanked Erdoğan for the release of Gölge in a statement after their phone call is an indication that Gölge’s release happened in this way.


In the hours when Erdoğan announced the "judicial reform," a package with ambiguous terms that Metin Feyzioğlu, president of the Turkish Bar Association, claimed would adhere to European Union standards, Turkey's judicial system is being reset.

In a short period of time, the AKP and Erdoğan have managed to take Turkey down to the level of a government that relies on tribalism. Turkey has transformed into a government that takes someone hostage through the judicial system for the purposes of diplomatic negotiation and releases someone without a court decision with the same aim. The entire world knows this. A country that does this has no credibility or stature in the global arena. The citizens are the ones who pay the price, and it's quite a heavy one at that.


Such a system is neither reformed nor attracts foreign capital, it simply collapses.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.