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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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  • Helsinki Commission on Opening of Europe’s Largest Human Rights Meeting

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, released the following statement ahead of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) annual high-level meeting on human rights. From September 22-October 3, civil society and government representatives of OSCE participating States will gather in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting to discuss compliance with the full range of OSCE human dimension commitments, with special focus on migrant rights, minority issues, and combating violence against women and children. “The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting takes place while Russian aggression in Ukraine continues to threaten basic OSCE principles. I expect this will be a major focus of the meeting, as well as Russian actions at home that are cynically rolling back the ability of civil society to comment on or contribute to how that country functions," said Chairman Cardin. "I am pleased that Professor Brian Atwood will head the U.S. Delegation at this critical time. The promises OSCE states made to one another almost 25 years ago, that respect for human rights within any country is a matter of concern for all states, has guided us and must continue to do so. I also welcome the leadership of the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, who will be taking a high-level study group to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp." Co-Chairman Smith said, “The Russian government’s gross human rights violations in Ukraine must be a central topic of discussion at the Human Dimension meeting. HDIM is an indispensable tool for holding states accountable to OSCE commitments and most effective when both government and civil society representatives have equal opportunity to debate each state’s human rights record.  One issue that states and civil society must discuss this year in Warsaw, and at the OSCE “Berlin Plus 10” anti-Semitism conference in November, is the alarming rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the OSCE region.  The OSCE must also continue to combat trafficking in human beings, including through fulfilling commitments taken last year to train transportation workers to identify possible victims and to improve law enforcement information sharing internationally on potential sex tourists. Commitments are made to be kept.”

  • Political Pluralism in the OSCE Mediterranean Partners?

    This hearing discussed developments within the OSCE Mediterranean Partnership countries and the Southern Mediterranean region..  In particular, the Commission focused on the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the resulting refugee crisis.  Several witnesses stressed the need for the OSCE countries to support strategic investment in positive civic engagement and educational resources for vulnerable populations in order to mitigate the effects of the refugee crisis.

  • Commission to Hold Hearing with OSCE Human Rights Appointees

    WASHINGTON—Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE Region Tuesday, July 22, 2014 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Following an escalation of anti-Semitic hate crimes a decade ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intensified efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination throughout Eurasia and North America. Since 2004, three Personal Representatives have been appointed annually by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (currently Switzerland) to address anti-Semitism; racism, xenophobia, and discrimination including against Christians and members of other religions; and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. In an official joint visit to the United States, the Personal Representatives will address progress and ongoing challenges in the OSCE region a decade after the creation of their positions. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Professor Talip Küçukcan, Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims Alexey Avtonomov, Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions

  • 15th Anniversary of the Bytyqi Brother Murders in Serbia

    Madam President, 15 years ago this week three American citizens--the brothers Ylli, Agron and Mehmet Bytyqi --were transferred from a prison to an Interior Ministry camp in Eastern Serbia. At that camp, they were executed and buried in a mass grave with dozens of Albanians from Kosovo. Today, I again call upon the Serbian authorities to bring those responsible for these murders to justice. Belgrade has given us assurances in recent years that action will be taken, but no clear steps have actually been taken to apprehend and prosecute those known to have been in command of the camp or the forces operating there. The three Bytyqi brothers went to Kosovo in 1999, a time of conflict and NATO intervention. Well after an agreed cessation of hostilities in early June, the brothers escorted an ethnic Romani family from Kosovo to territory still under Serbian control, where that family would be safer. Serbian authorities apprehended the brothers as they were undertaking this humanitarian task and held them in jail for 15 days for illegal entry. When time came for their release, they were instead turned over to a special operations unit of the Serbian Interior Ministry, transported to the camp and brutally executed. There was no due process, no trial, and no opportunity for the brothers to defend themselves. There was nothing but the cold-blooded murder of three American citizen brothers. Serbia today is not the Serbia of 15 years ago. The people of Serbia ousted the undemocratic and extreme nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and the country has since made a steady, if at times difficult, transition to democracy and the rule of law. In 2014, Serbia began accession talks to join the European Union, and in 2015 it will chair the OSCE, a European organization which promotes democratic norms and human rights. I applaud Serbia on its progress and I support its integration into Europe, but I cannot overlook the continued and contrasting absence of justice in the Bytyqi case. The new government of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has pledged to act. It must now generate the political will to act. The protection of those responsible for this crime can no longer be tolerated. The surviving Bytyqi family deserves to see justice. Serbia itself will put a dark past behind it by providing this justice. Serbian-American relations and Serbia's OSCE chairmanship will be enhanced by providing justice. It is time for those responsible for the Bytyqi brother murders to lose their protection and to answer for the crimes they committed 15 years ago.

  • Cardin, Smith Advance Security and Human Rights during Annual Meeting of European Parliamentarians

    WASHINGTON - A bipartisan 8-member Congressional delegation led by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), visited Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In Baku, Azerbaijan, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, headed the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from June 28-July 2 that successfully advanced priority security and human rights initiatives. Key among the U.S. initiatives was a resolution introduced by Chairman Ben Cardin condemning Russia’s violation of international commitments by annexing Crimea and directly supporting separatist conflict in Ukraine. Upon passage of the resolution by a 3 to 1 margin, Cardin stated: “Russia is a member of this organization, but is violating its core principles. We must speak up in the strongest possible way and hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing actions and that is what we did here.” Co-Chairman Smith received overwhelming support for his resolution on efforts to combat child sex trafficking. As the Assembly’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking, Smith’s initiative pressed for the formation of a notification system among countries regarding the travel of persons convicted of sex crimes against children, as well as increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies and with the travel industry to prevent child sex tourism. “This resolution provides a tool to mitigate the horrific abuse of children by sexual tourism,” said Smith. “These predators thrive on secrecy, and so the goal is advance notification of sex offender travel so that children can be protected.” In addition to Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Smith, the delegation included Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt(R-AL), Commissioner Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). The U.S. delegation fielded two of the 18 resolutions considered at the annual session, as well as a total of 19 amendments to several of these resolutions. In an initiative related to Chairman Cardin’s Ukraine resolution, Senator Wicker introduced language adopted by the Assembly recognizing the importance of the OSCE’s military observation missions, including the inspections in Ukraine.  Senator Wicker also participated in a dialogue with fellow parliamentarians on OSCE engagement with partner country Afghanistan. Senator Tom Harkin successfully offered amendments calling for access and equal opportunity for persons with disabilities, including calling for the ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by all OSCE participating States. Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt achieved passage of language supporting the integration of Western Balkan countries into the EU and NATO, and, in a separate initiative, highlighted the plight of “disappeared” political prisoners in Turkmenistan and called on that government to finally come clean on the fate of these individuals, one of whom was a former OSCE ambassador. An initiative by Rep. David Schweikert encouraged increased outreach by the OSCE to Mediterranean Partner countries, while Rep. Phil Gingrey brokered an agreement calling for concrete steps to promote clean and affordable energy. Finally, Rep. Smith and Senator Cardin joined an initiative with the Canadian delegation to respond more vigorously to acts of anti-Semitism throughout the participating States. On July 2 the meeting concluded with the adoption of the Baku Declaration, containing broad policy recommendations for the OSCE and its 57 participating States in the fields of political affairs and military security, trade, the environment and human rights. While in Azerbaijan, the delegation also held bilateral meetings with the Government of Azerbaijan, including meeting with President Ilham Aliyev as well as representatives of civil society fighting for media freedom, rule of law and disability rights in Azerbaijan. Bilateral meetings in Georgia and Moldova In addition to attending the OSCE PA’s Annual Session in Azerbaijan, Chairman Cardin led the delegation to stops in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Chisinau, Moldova, for bilateral meetings to discuss expanded ties with the United States as well as regional security in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. In Georgia the delegation met with the President, Prime Minister, and the leadership of the United National Movement opposition party offering U.S. support and encouraging further democratic reforms, particularly in building a robust and independent judiciary free from corruption and untainted by politically-motivated prosecutions. In Moldova, the delegation met with the Prime Minister and key political leaders across the spectrum on the day the national parliament ratified an historic agreement with the European Union. The delegation also held consultations with the leadership of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, representatives of civil society, and the U.S. Embassy.

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