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American Scientist Suffers Under Turkey’s Faltering Rule of Law
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

By Everett Price,
Policy Advisor

From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns.

This feature article on Turkey coincides with the September 19 session of HDIM 2017, which focuses on whether OSCE participating States are implementing their commitments related to rule of law. On September 11, the first day of the meeting, the Turkish delegation walked out to protest that an NGO it alleged has ties with the Gulen movement was allowed to register for HDIM.

A NASA scientist based in Houston, Texas has spent the last 14 months in a Turkish prison, caught in the same dragnet that has ensnared tens of thousands of Turkish nationals since the failed coup attempt that played out in Turkey during the night of July 15, 2016. The scale of the Turkish government’s crackdown since that chaotic night is difficult to comprehend, but this scientist’s story illustrates the kind of ordinary lives that the sweeping purges upended with only the slimmest of justifications.

A 37-year old dual citizen of the United States and Turkey, Serkan Golge is married to Kubra, also a dual US-Turkish national. The couple has two young sons, aged eight and one.  They have lived in a two-story home in a quiet suburb of Houston since 2013, when Serkan landed a contract as a senior research scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, focusing on the effects of solar radiation on the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Serkan’s mind, once immersed in scientific observation and the boundless expanse of outer space, is now mostly trapped in the contemplation of his small prison cell and the national political drama that landed him there. For the past 14 months, he has been detained in Iskenderun prison on the Mediterranean coast of southeastern Turkey, 25 miles from the Syrian border—he has spent the last 12 months in solitary confinement, allowed outside his cell just one hour every day.

***

On the morning of July 23, eight days after the failed coup, Serkan and his family were wrapping up a month-long stay with his parents in Antakya, Turkey.

The surreal night of the coup attempt, including pitched street battles between rebel military units and civilians in Istanbul and Ankara, had seemed a world away to the Golges on vacation in Turkey’s southern Hatay province. But as Serkan and his family were loading up a car to go to the airport to begin their return trip to Houston, the coup’s aftermath arrived at their doorstep.

Plainclothes state security officials approached Serkan as he emerged from the house and detained him on suspicion of membership in the so-called “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (FETO) that the Turkish government has accused of plotting the overthrow attempt. “FETO” is the pejorative term coined by the Turkish government for a major social and religious movement in Turkey led by the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Once a political ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gulen movement fell out with AKP officials in recent years as the movement asserted its independence in various state organs, particularly the courts. President Erdoğan perceived the Gulen movement as a threat and started to purge its allies in state ministries, followed by the private sector. It was no surprise to most observers when Erdoğan declared “FETO” responsible for the coup and moved to eviscerate every last remnant of the group in Turkish institutions, whether in the public sector, business, media, civil society, or education. 

Serkan is currently on trial and faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted of belonging to “FETO.” Yet the evidence that ostensibly links him to the organization, establishing his complicity in the coup and justifying his prolonged detention, is astonishingly thin. A distant disgruntled relative appears to have denounced Serkan to authorities to settle an old score relating to an inheritance dispute. Based on the relative’s statements, authorities arrested Serkan and raided his parents’ home where they seized upon a single one-dollar bill as evidence. Turkish authorities claim that Fethullah Gulen gave blessed American dollar bills to his followers; thus, national security trials around the country have scrutinized countless dollar bills in their deliberations.

His relative further testified to his suspicion that Serkan worked for the CIA. When questioned about this at trial, the relative acknowledged that his claim was based solely on the fact that Serkan lived in the United States. Authorities have also questioned Serkan about his college degree from a major Gulen-affiliated university that the government closed in 2016. He reminded authorities that he attended the university on a government-funded scholarship—a reminder of the ruling party’s formerly cozy relationship with the organization it now denounces as public enemy number one.

A dollar bill, a U.S. passport, and a college degree: this is the evidence that has landed an American citizen in solitary confinement for a year in Turkey.

***

Serkan’s experience reflects the plight of the tens of thousands of people arrested, imprisoned, or fired from their jobs for suspicion of involvement in the attempted coup. The state of emergency decrees that paved the way for these massive purges did not specify the criteria for detention and dismissal. As a result, baseless assertions about an individual’s suspected links to “FETO” have caused people to lose their jobs, be stripped of their professional licenses, or thrown in jail without even the most minimal due process.

In all, the government has detained more than 110,000 people, of whom 50,000 are under arrest. These detentions have swelled Turkey’s prison population and prompted the government last year to release 38,000 inmates just to make room for the influx. Reliable information is not available for the number of ongoing trials or convictions but last month the government issued a decree extending the maximum pre-trial detention period from five to seven years, underscoring how prolonged detention without conviction can serve as punishment itself.

Of the 140,000 people who lost their jobs, so far 30,000 have been allowed to return to work. Meanwhile, 80,000 people who lost jobs have appealed their cases to a temporary State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission established by Ankara in July 2017.

The case load created by the purges would strain the judicial system under normal circumstances, but the situation faced by the Turkish judiciary today is anything but normal.  Prior to the coup attempt, President Erdogan had already embarked on a campaign to extend his influence over the judicial branch and promote party loyalists within its ranks. In the coup’s aftermath, this campaign kicked into high gear. Since July 2016, President Erdogan dismissed more than 4,200 judges and prosecutors—approximately a quarter of the total—on suspicion of subversive loyalties.  Of the 900 new judges recruited as replacements in April, opposition leaders claim 800 have ties to the ruling party. 

The independence of the Turkish judiciary further eroded in April 2017 when a controversial nationwide referendum narrowly approved constitutional changes that increased the President’s influence over the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (CJP). The powerful CJP “oversees the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplining, and dismissal” of judges. Under the newly enacted constitutional amendments, the President now appoints nearly half of the CJP and the Turkish parliament appoints the rest, easily giving the ruling party a majority on the council. 

Straining under the weight of an overwhelming case load and immense political pressure, Turkey’s judiciary appears to lack the capacity and capability to deliver timely and credible justice for Serkan Golge and thousands like him.

***

Back in Houston, the Golges’ house is now on the market. Kubra has opted to remain in Turkey, living with her in-laws in Antakya; she fears that even if the government let her and her sons out of the country it might not let them back in.  She covered the mortgage from abroad for the past year, but the mounting financial pressure was unsustainable. Her eldest son should have begun second grade this month at his local public school in Houston. He says he misses his old room, his books and toys.

She is able to visit Serkan once a week where she and the children can speak to him by phone through a glass pane. Once every two months, they can meet in person and embrace, always under the watchful gaze of prison guards. Serkan’s next trial date is set for October 13th. For now, the Golge’s homecoming in Houston is postponed indefinitely: every new hearing brings with it the hope of acquittal and the dread of an unjustified conviction. 

In May, the Helsinki Commission’s leadership, joined by the co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, sent a letter to President Trump urging him to raise Serkan’s case, among others, with President Erdogan during the latter’s official visit to Washington. The letter highlighted the cases of other American prisoners and a detained veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in Adana accused of supporting a Kurdish terrorist organization. The letter further encouraged the President to seek consular access for U.S. diplomats to detained Americans in Turkey—a courtesy the government has so far denied them. The Commission will continue to highlight these and other cases in Turkey and urge Ankara to uphold its commitments as a participating State of the OSCE to human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law.

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    This briefing evaluated the signs of serious deterioration in the political and economic situation as growing authoritarianism and repression of human rights that had become the subject of increasing concern both within and outside Belarus. The violation of Belarus' freely undertaken commitments under the OSCE in regards to basic rights and freedoms, freedom of expression, assembly, and association was also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Zyanon Paznyak, Chairman of the Belarus Popular Front; Jack Segal, Director of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldovan Affairs for the State Department; Jan Zaprudnik, Former Editor of Radio Liberty, Belarus; and Antti Korkeakivi, CIS Legal Advisor for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – examined the role of President Lukashenko in the formation of the lawless regime in Belarus. Numerous violations of human rights were cited by all witnesses, and the role of Russian support for these types of policies was also discussed.

  • Hungary's Relations with her Neighbors

    Mr. Speaker, I want to bring to the attention of my colleagues the joint declaration adopted in Budapest on July 5 by representatives of the Hungarian Government and by representatives of Hungarian communities abroad- the so-called Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration. The status of the various and sizable Hungarian minority communities in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia are of considerable interest to many in Congress. How governments treat their minority communities is often a significant barometer of how they will treat their citizens as a whole, and a strong indicator of the progress of democratization in countries in transition. In fact, I remain concerned about the minority situation in each of these countries, and, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, have raised such concerns on a number of occasions.   Many hoped the Hungarian-Hungarian summit document would provide some useful insight into the concrete concerns of Hungarian minorities. Unfortunately, the summit document adopted in Budapest does not address the kind of specific and concrete issues that are usually raised with the Commission, such as minority language schooling or electoral districting. Instead, the declaration stands as a broad and somewhat ambiguous endorsement of `autonomy' and `self-government.' Those terms, guaranteed to alarm those already afraid of alleged Hungarian irredentism, were unfortunately left undefined, fostering the perception in some quarters that the declaration represents only a thinly veiled effort by Budapest to extend its influence beyond current Hungarian borders and, implicitly, to turn back the clock to the days when Hungarians were united in a single country.   I appreciate the Hungarian Embassy's willingness to clarify for the Commission the underlying intent of his declaration. In particular, the Embassy asserted that the word `autonomy' was in no way intended to signal `territorial autonomy.' I also believe the declaration's positive emphasis on the importance of the accession of all Hungary's neighbors into NATO and the European Union should not be overlooked and, indeed, is especially important in light of the recent congressional debate on NATO expansion. Nevertheless, I believe that the declaration, through the use of wording that is ambiguous at best and, at worst, predictably inflammatory, stands in contradiction to Hungary's stated goal of pursuing `good neighbor' policies. Surprisingly, Hungary implies that its goal of gaining admission to NATO and other European organizations should be dependent on `the fundamental interests of Hungarian national communities abroad'--a message that suggests a qualified interest in accession to NATO.   Finally, I must note that concerns about this declaration were only heightened by the statement of the Hungarian representative to the OSCE in Vienna, Ambassador Martin Krasznai. In defending the use of the word `autonomy,' Ambassador Krasznai presented the Basques, Catalans, and South-Tyroleans as positive examples of Europe's experience with autonomous movements. The irony of these particular references was probably not lost on the representatives of Italy or Spain--especially in the wake of the numerous terrorist bombings attributed to Basque separatists last month. Mr. Speaker, while a rare opportunity for discussion about real minority concerns may have been missed, I also see the Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration as an aberration from the current government's usually constructive approach. I will continue to follow the situation of minority communities in central Europe and the inseparable issue of the progress of democratization in general. As I do so, I hope that Hungarian representatives will join with the Commission in seeking to promote democracy for all the citizens of all the countries of the OSCE.

  • Serbia and Montenegro: The Prospects for Change

    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Albanian Parliamentary Elections

    Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission, addressed what he called the “most controversial elections held in recent times in [Eastern Europe]” and described his experiences observing Albania’s elections. Hand commented on the limited progress of the Albanian government since 1990 and specifically the corruption of the 1996 elections. The witnesses - Susan Atwood from the National Democratic Institute, Jim Swigert from Office of South the State Department, and Ambassador Dilja - spoke of their personal surprise at the elections and about the general confusion that surrounded them. Jim Swigert described his role in motivating members of the OSCE to observe the elections and take interest in Albania’s democratization.

  • The Albanian Parliamentary Elections

    The May 1996 parliamentary elections in Albania were the third such elections in that country, which beforehand had by far the most repressive communist regime. It has also been the poorest country in Europe. In March 1991, only four months after political pluralism was tolerated in the country, the commu- nists (Socialist Party) won a majority and maintained control, relying on a less than adequately free and fair electoral process and lingering support in the countryside. In March 1992, the opposition Democratic Party led by Sali Berisha was better able to get the message out to a still traumatized population, and took power as the Socialists conceded. Since that time, there have been incredible economic and political reforms, although since 1994 shortcomings in democratic development seem less the result of the lack of understanding of concepts like the rule of law than more the overbearing nature of the Democratic Party's core leadership, especially after splits within the party led to the departure of some of its earlier leaders. The Democrats received a significant setback in November 1994 when popular resentment led to the defeat in a referendum of a new constitution for the country. The situation is exacerbated by an only partly reformed Socialist opposition, which has been inclined more to obstruct and provocate than anything else. The elections were for 140 seats in the unicameral Assembly, 115 of them contested on the basis of majority races in electoral zones, with second-round runoffs, and 25 on the basis of a proportional division of parties achieving at least 4 percent of the vote. This gave the electorate two votes, one for a specific candidate and one for a political party. Members of several opposition parties complained that the greater preference given to the majority system favored the ruling party, or larger parties which would only include the Socialists. Democratic Party leaders argued that this is not necessarily the case, and that the majority system permits direct contact between a candidate and a constituency, thus strengthening democratic development. From the viewpoint of the election observer, either system or combination thereof is legiti- mate as long as it was approved through democratic means. A recently adopted law -- called the Genocide Law -- and a commission established to implement it had an impact on the eligibility for candidacy. The law prohibited those who "collaborated" with the com- munist regime from holding office until 2002. Given the severity of the repression during the communist era, it is not surprising that such a prohibition would be popular, but the commission which made the decisions was under government control and did not act in a transparent matter. Indeed, some opposition members called it unconstitutional because it was acting as a court when it was not. A total of 139 people were declared ineligible to compete in the elections, 57 of whom appealed decisions, seven successfully. Only three of the 139 people prohibited came from the ruling party, although it was claimed that the Democratic Party had told people who would probably also have been prohibited not to run as a candidate in the first place. The campaign period began in April, allowing a reasonable amount of time for political parties to get their message across. In fact, as these elections were required by the expiration of the mandate of the previously elected Assembly, the political parties were generally preparing for the elections months before- hand. The print media in Albania is almost all completely biased in favor of one party or another, allowing all points of view to be expressed but with little objective analysis available. The broadcast media is state controlled and had a definite but not overwhelming bias in its coverage of the campaign. However, the election law stipulated time frames for each political party in the campaign to present itself to the voters on television, and this was advantageous to the party in power. Many of the political parties campaigned by holding mass rallies. Opposition parties complained that the police in some towns prevented party leaders from traveling to attend rallies, and the Socialists were denied the ability to hold a final rally on the central (Skenderbeg) square of the capital city, Tirana, because it would disrupt traffic. A Democratic Party rally, on the other hand, was permitted because it was technically scheduled as an official address by Sali Berisha as the Albanian President.

  • Violence in Slovakia

    Mr. Speaker, I am alarmed by recent violence in Slovakia that may be part of a larger pattern of politically motivated violence. During the weekend of May 4-5, a device that may have been a hand-grenade exploded in front of the home of Bela Bugar. Mr. Bugar is not only a member of the Hungarian minority's opposition coalition, he is also, according to opinion polls, its most popular member. Shortly before that incident, Robert Remias, a former policeman who has been questioned in connection with the kidnaping of President Michal Kovac's son last year, died when his propane-fueled BMW exploded. Although it is not yet certain who is responsible for these acts, it is clear that violence coincides with politics in Slovakia at a suspiciously high rate. I also recall, for example, that Frantisek Miklosko, the opposition leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, was assaulted by unknown attackers near his home last August; Peter Toth, a journalist investigating the Kovac case, has also been assaulted; last April, a bomb went off in the car of Arpad Matejka, a member of the Prime Minister's party. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, is no stranger to Slovakia. We were a close observer of developments there well before the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation in 1992 and have issued two major reports on that country. Since last summer, I have been joined twice by Senator Alfonse D'Amato, the Commissions' cochairman, and the Commission's ranking minority members, Representative Steny H. Hoyer and Senator Frank Lautenberg, in sending letters to Slovak Ambassador Lichardus regarding continuing challenges to the democratization process in his country. Although the Commission has raised a number of serious concerns in these letters, we have, remained generally optimistic about developments in Slovakia. Last week, for example, I hosted a conference in New Jersey on business opportunities in Central Europe, where I discussed some of the positive economic changes in Slovakia that are creating new opportunities for Slovak society as a whole. I appreciate the willingness of the Slovak Parliament to consider the views of a number of international interlocutors regarding draft legislation and note the active and constructive role of the President and the Constitutional Court in guiding the passage of legislation consistent with democratic values and human rights norms. I commend Prime Minister Meciar for his decision last week to seek, in his words, a wider democratic discussion of the draft law on the protection of the Republic. Most of all, I have been greatly heartened by the increasing involvement of Slovak citizens in all areas of public life. The message sent by the most recent developments in Slovakia, therefore, is all the more discouraging. And that message is dangerous: take on a high political profile, and you are possibly a more visible--and more likely--target of violence. I welcome the May 9 statement of the Government of Slovakia condemning acts of violence and promising a thorough investigation of these matters. I believe it is particularly important that the death of Robert Remias be examined in an open and transparent manner, in a manner that makes information available to all those concerned with this case, and in a manner that will foster credibility in its results. Mr. Speaker, the Helsinki Commission will continue to follow closely developments in this case, and I expect to report further to this body as information becomes available.

  • Rebuilding Bosnia-Herzegovina: Strategies and the U.S. Role

    The Helsinki Commission addressed the status of the ongoing rehabilitation efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina following the conclusion of the war that took place between 1992 and 1995. Amidst lasting tensions, the Commission emphasized the need for reconciliation and for civilians to actively participate in this process. The primary witness, J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the Agency for International Development, emphasized several goals for moving forward in Bosnia-Herzegovina such as addressing the issue of displaced persons by repairing housing infrastructure, encouraging economic activity through international cooperation with the central bank, and initiating elections under free and fair conditions. 

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