Turkey on Wednesday night released Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American dual citizen imprisoned on dubious terrorism charges, hours after a phone call between President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The move comes as the Turkish president struggles to contain the country’s economic crisis ahead of a historic rerun of Istanbul’s mayoral election set for June 23.
Golge, a NASA physicist, was one of the three U.S. citizens – in addition to three local employees of the U.S. mission in Turkey – held on frivolous charges of terrorism, coup plotting, and espionage in the wake of a failed coup attempt in 2016. Erdogan has subsequently pursued a strategy of hostage diplomacy and leveraged more than 50 American and European detainees as bargaining chips to extract concessions from his Western counterparts.
The Turkish police arrested Golge shortly after the failed coup, when one of his in-laws notified the police that he could be a CIA agent. The in-law later admitted in court that “I have no evidence, only suspicions,” noting that since “he works in the U.S., I thought he could be working for the CIA.”
The prosecution instead sought to tie Golge to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim cleric accused of masterminding the coup. The evidence of Golge’s ties to Gulen consisted of a dollar bill found in Golge’s parents’ house – an alleged sign of Gulenist affiliation – and Golge’s account in a bank owned by Gulen’s supporters. The court ultimately sentenced Golge to seven-and-a-half years in prison. Months after Golge’s conviction an appeals court changed his conviction charge from “membership” in a terror organization to the lesser crime of “aiding” one, thus reducing Golge’s sentence to five years.
As in the case of one previous hostage, North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, Trump’s negotiations with Erdogan appear to have played a role in Golge’s unexpected release only several hours after a phone call between the two presidents. Erdogan reportedly told Trump that Golge was “shortly going to be released from jail.” Trump then reportedly accepted Erdogan’s offer to form a joint study group on Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, despite opposition from the Pentagon and the State Department.
“They released this prisoner, hostage, whatever you want to call him,” Trump said the next day, adding, “I just want to thank President Erdogan. We dealt with that. He was great.” Trump then indicated Golge would be soon coming to the U.S., although Turkey has barred Golge from leaving the country. His wife and two children, who are also U.S. citizens, were also banned from leaving Turkey since Golge’s arrest.
Erdogan’s sudden change of heart concerning Golge is likely connected to growing economic woes ahead of the June 23 re-run of municipal elections in Istanbul. The Turkish strongman wants to ease tensions resulting from myriad bilateral problems between Turkey and the U.S., fearing another currency meltdown like the one Trump triggered by sanctioning Turkish ministers during the Brunson crisis. Indeed, Erdogan has been eyeing a one-on-one with Trump. Both the Turkish lira and stock market made gains following reports of their phone call.
Now that the two leaders are set to meet on the sidelines of the upcoming G-20 summit in Japan next month, Trump should use this opportunity to remind Erdogan of the injustice three State Department employees continue to suffer in Turkey. Washington should resist Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy tactics, stand firm on the S-400 controversy, and refuse to agree to a deal that comes at the expense of U.S. persons or the rule of law in Turkey.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. Follow Aykan and Merve on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.