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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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    At this hearing, Chairman Chris Smith and other lawmakers examined denialism of the Armenian Genocide by the Government of Turkey and the decades-long effort to seek accountability. The hearing also provided an opportunity to assess potential countercurrents in Turkish society that could move the Government of Turkey toward recognition, and explore what the United States and other countries can do to help bring about recognition and eventually, reconciliation. Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the sustained campaign of the Turkish government to deny the Armenian genocide and its impact on Armenian-Turkish relations and foreign policy in the region. Turkey’s denialism of its past and making it an essential part of its foreign policy was identified as a threat to democracy, stability, and security in the entire region.

  • Smith: U.S. Must End Its Denial of Armenian Genocide

    Genocide is the most terrible crime a people can undergo, or another people can commit. It must never be forgotten. To forget it would be to dull our consciences and diminish our own humanity. It must never be denied, but fully acknowledged. Otherwise, any meaningful attempt at reconciliation will be thwarted. Brookdale College, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (Chhange), and everyone who contributed to making exhibits the center unveiled April 12 a reality, has performed a great service to our community, not only to Armenian-Americans, but to everyone, including those who deny the genocide. They are opening paths to the truth, and therefore to a better future. In September 2000, I had put together and chaired a hearing on the Armenian genocide and legislation to finally put the United States on record officially acknowledging it. It was a four-hour hearing, the first hearing the House of Representatives ever held on it. The testimony I heard that day, and accounts of the atrocities I have read in the articles and books over the years, have shocked me deeply. A related resolution on the genocide, H. Res. 398 — vigorously opposed by the Clinton administration — never got a vote. But just as shocking then is what we still see today: a completely political and callous campaign to deny the Armenian genocide. In 1915, there were about 2 million Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire. They were living in a region that they inhabited for 2,500 years. By 1923, well over 90 percent of these Armenians had disappeared. Most of them, as many as 1.5 million were dead. The remainder had been forced into exile. There is no lack of historical record. In fact, we only have to listen to the words of the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau, who called it a "campaign of race extermination." We only have to listen to the British, French, and Russian governments who said the Young Turks committed a "crime against humanity," the first time in history that charge was ever made by one state against another. And we only have to listen to the government of Turkey itself, which tried and convicted a number of high-ranking Young Turk officials for their role in what the Turkish government's indictment called, "the massacre and destruction of the Armenians." When the term genocide was invented in 1944 to describe the systematic destruction of an entire people, its author Raphael Lemkin explained the term by saying it was "the sort of thing Hitler did to the Jews and the Turks did to the Armenians." The campaign to deny this genocide, often driven by the Turkish government, is repulsive. It is a slap in the face to Armenians everywhere. It is this denial that keeps the Armenian genocide a burning issue and prevents much needed healing of old wounds. Armenians are unfortunately not alone in suffering the hurt and pain that stems from the denial of truth. The international community failed the victims of the Holocaust, China, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bosnia, DRC, Darfur and Syria, to name a few. That means that we here in the United States, and that means not only the Congress but also the president, have the responsibility to speak truthfully and to speak boldly about the past in order to secure our future. We must write and speak the truth so that generations to come will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Only 20 nations around the world have recognized the Armenian genocide. That includes Canada as well as eleven EU countries including France, Germany Italy, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Greece and Cypress. Conspicuously absent from the list of nations that have officially recognized it is the United States. For my part, I am preparing to chair a congressional hearing on April 23 — the day before Armenian Remembrance Day (April 24) — which this year marks the 100th anniversary of the genocide. When political leaders fail to lead or denounce violence, the void is not only demoralizing to the victims but silence actually enables the wrongdoing. Silence by elected officials in particular conveys approval — or at least acquiescence —and can contribute to a climate of fear and a sense of vulnerability. History has taught us that silence is not an option. We must do more. Chris Smith is a Republican congressman representing New Jersey's 4th District, which includes portions of Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing Reviews Progress toward Accountability, Justice, and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland

    WASHINGTON—At its March 18 hearing on “Northern Ireland: Stormont, Collusion, and the Finucane Inquiry,” the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, reviewed ongoing efforts for accountability, justice, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.   Witness testimony focused on the provisions of the December 2014 Stormont House Agreement, especially those aspects addressing government collusion in paramilitary crimes, and the long-promised inquiry into the 1989 murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane. “For years, British officials denied collusion in crimes committed by paramilitaries,” said Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “In recent years, evidence has mounted that its security services enabled or had advance knowledge of a substantial number of paramilitary murders. We hope to find out what the British government has done in response.” “The many previous denials [by the British government] and the time that has passed in the Finucane case have drained public confidence in the peace process and diminished respect for the rule of law in Northern Ireland,” Chairman Smith continued. “There are those who oppose the peace process and their opposition is dangerous. The failure to address the case of Patrick Finucane in the manner promised by the British government provides a readily available propaganda tool for those who would abuse it to further their own ends.” “Many people in Ireland lack confidence in the establishment and are slow to accept that things have really changed,” said Mrs. Geraldine Finucane, widow of Patrick Finucane. “One of the examples that is often pointed to as a reason for this mistrust of the establishment is the lack of an inquiry in Pat’s case, despite the truly shocking revelations of several major investigations … it is clear that the British Government is fighting against the prospect of full and public accountability for its actions.” “It was quite a formidable political achievement to achieve consensus on the…Stormont House Agreement,” said Professor Kieran McEvoy, Queen’s University School of Law, Belfast. “If the political will exists from the different political actors, and that will is translated into robust legislation designed to maximize the effectiveness of the different mechanisms, the Stormont House Agreement does provide a roadmap to make significant progress in dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.” “Most of the families we [at the Pat Finucane Center] represent realize that seeing anyone brought to court for the crimes…is beyond their reach,” said Anne Cadwallader, author of Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland.  “They are, however, full of steely determination that the truth should be told.  They hope that this will ensure that those responsible for taking similar decisions will never again collude in the deaths of the citizens they are meant to protect.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Joseph Crowley (NY-14), Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09), and Rep. Brendan Boyle (PA-13).

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Northern Ireland: The Stormont House Agreement, Collusion, and the Finucane Inquiry

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Northern Ireland: Stormont, Collusion, and the Finucane Inquiry” Wednesday, March 18 2:00PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2175 The Helsinki Commission hearing will review progress toward holding individuals accountable for past injustices in Northern Ireland. This will include the December 2014 Stormont House Agreement, as well as government collusion in paramilitary crimes, and the long-promised—but not yet delivered—inquiry into the murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane. In the December 2014 Stormont House Agreement, the parties of the Northern Ireland Executive and the British and Irish governments agreed on a process to resolve a number of outstanding issues in Northern Ireland. These include accountability for past injustices, or what has become known as “dealing with the past.” The success of the process is far from assured, and the hearing will investigate its prospects, and help determine how the US government can best support its implementation. The hearing will examine other issues of accountability for past government collusion in paramilitary crimes. This will include the Finucane case: as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the government of the United Kingdom solemnly committed to conducting a public, independent judicial inquiry into its collusion in Mr. Finucane’s murder. Yet 17 years after the accord and 26 years after Mr. Finucane’s death, the British government has not yet conducted the promised inquiry. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Anne Cadwallader, author, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland Mrs. Geraldine Finucane, widow of murdered human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane Professor Kieran McEvoy, Queen’s University School of Law, Belfast, Northern Ireland

  • Chairman Smith Condemns Brutal Murder of Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov

    WASHINGTON—Following tonight’s reports of the shooting death of peaceful opposition leader and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement:   “I condemn the brutal slaying of Boris Nemtsov in the strongest terms possible. The gangland-style murder of a leading Russian dissident on the streets of Moscow raises the question of whether bullets have replaced the ballot box in Russia, and whether any peaceful opposition voice is safe. We mourn Mr. Nemtsov’s death and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.” According to Russian officials, Mr. Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on a street near the Kremlin. A leader of Russia’s political opposition, he was a co-founder of Solidarity and a key organizer of a scheduled March 1 protest in Moscow. Mr. Nemtsov served as First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. He spoke at a Helsinki Commission event in Washington in November 2010 at the world premiere of the film “Justice for Sergei.”

  • Chairman Smith and Serbian Foreign Minister Support OSCE Role in Promoting Peace in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–On February 25, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, held a hearing at which Ivica Dacic, the Foreign Minister of Serbia and Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), testified as to his plans for Serbia’s 2015 leadership of the OSCE. The chief issue facing the organization is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian needs of the people of eastern Ukraine, including the OSCE’s role in monitoring the Minsk cease-fire agreement. Both Russia and Ukraine are among the 57 member states of the OSCE, the world’s largest regional security organization. Opening the hearing, Chairman Smith said that Foreign Minister Dacic’s leadership of the OSCE “comes at a moment of tragedy, of tremendous human suffering.” Smith emphasized that “one OSCE member – the Russian government – is tearing the heart out of a neighboring member, Ukraine.” “Understanding that the OSCE is a consensus organization – meaning that the Russian government has an effective veto over many significant actions – we believe that the OSCE is still able and responsible to speak the truth about the conflict, to find ways to limit it, and to help the people of Ukraine,” he said. Foreign Minister Dacic emphasized that “the Serbian Chairmanship will make every effort to help restore peace in Ukraine.” In its role as Chairman of the OSCE, Dacic said, “Serbia brings to the table good relations with all the key stakeholders, and we are making every effort to serve as an honest broker and use our leadership role to utilize the OSCE toolbox impartially and transparently.” Foreign Minister Dacic also discussed the fight against human trafficking and anti-Semitism with Chairman Smith.  Other members of the Helsinki Commission participating in the hearing included Senator Ben Cardin, and Congressmen Joe Pitts, Alcee Hastings, and Steve Cohen.

  • Chairman Smith and Rep. McGovern Introduce “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators:  we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said.  “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia.  Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.

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