Early next month, Serkan Golge will learn whether his nightmare will continue. In July 2016, he and his family were in southern Turkey wrapping up a visit to relatives and preparing to return home to Houston, Texas, where the Turkish-American space scientist studies the effects of radiation on astronauts. But before his wife, Kubra, could finish strapping their two young sons into car seats, police arrived and took Golge away.
The police accused him of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency, and last April they charged the dual citizen with terrorism. “We were all stunned. It didn’t make any sense,” says computer scientist Alicia Hofler, a former colleague of Golge’s at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. A verdict is expected on 8 February; if convicted, Golge faces up to 15 years in prison.
He is one of several U.S. citizens and thousands of Turkish academics caught up in a crackdown following a July 2016 coup attempt. Scores of scientists are in prison, and many more have lost their jobs. Most academics now need permission to travel abroad. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, asserts the measures are necessary for national security: to root out allies or sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen, a cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdoğan has accused of masterminding the coup. But the crackdown quickly widened and has swept up even leftist and liberal opponents.
Harsh measures under an ongoing state of emergency could threaten the future of Turkish science, observers say. As long as a travel ban persists and “scientists currently jailed are not released, people won’t be able to maintain their relations abroad,” says Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at the City University of New York’s Lehman College and co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting scientists’ human rights. Ironically, before the coup Erdoğan was widely regarded as a patron of science, Chudnovsky says. “Many Turkish scientists will say that their situation had improved tremendously in terms of their economic situation, their ability to travel internationally,” he says. “Now, of course, scientists are worried.”
Soon after the failed coup, authorities raided the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, the government research funding agency known by its Turkish acronym TÜBİTAK, arresting dozens. The purge reached the higher education system, where some 5000 academics accused of ties to Gülen have been dismissed, suspended, or forced to resign.
That frenzy ensnared Golge. According to Kubra, an estranged family member who held a grudge over an inheritance dispute told authorities Golge was a terrorist and a spy. He has denied the charges; in court months later, the relative who tipped off police stated he was only 1% sure the accusations he leveled were actually true, says Kubra, who has attended the trial. As evidence of Golge’s guilt, prosecutors pointed to the fact that he, like many Turks, holds an account in a bank owned by Gülen followers, and he studied at a university with ties to Gülen.
Another Turkish-American scientist caught in the dragnet is Ismail Kul, a chemist at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. According to Turkish media reports, Kul and his brother were arrested on a visit to Turkey in 2016 and accused of participating in the attempted coup. In court, Kul denied the charges, though he acknowledged having met Gülen several times since 2010, when he was introduced to the cleric by a Turkish legislator in Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. (AK and the Gülen movement were allies with similar ideologies until a conflict between the two erupted in 2013.) Kul is out on bail while his trial continues.
Those Turkish scientists spared persecution have seen international collaborations wither. Academics now must obtain permission from university administrators to travel abroad, and TÜBİTAK has reportedly curtailed travel scholarships for students and researchers. Many who manage to get out have not come back, accelerating Turkey’s brain drain, according to İlker Birbil, a Turkish data scientist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Birbil, who left Turkey in January 2017, faced difficulties after signing a petition in 2016 calling on the government to resume peace talks with Kurdish militants. Taking a stand had repercussions, he says. “We suddenly realized that it was impossible for us to get funding from TÜBİTAK,” he says. “In a nutshell, they don’t really go after merit anymore.” After signing the petition, Izge Günal says he was forced to resign from the orthopedics department at Dokuz Eylül University in İzmir, Turkey. Günal, who remains in Turkey, foresees a steady decline of Turkish science, “replacing Enlightenment thought with superstitions.” In public comments, Turkey’s science minister, Faruk Özlü, has denied that the government is pressuring scholars or interfering in TÜBİTAK’s reviews.
What happens to Kul and Golge could hinge on tensions between Turkey and the United States, which has supported Kurdish rebels in Syria and has balked at extraditing Gülen. In a televised speech last September, Erdoğan said Andrew Brunson, a pastor and U.S. citizen jailed in Turkey, would not be returned until the United States extradited Gülen. The comments left Golge’s family fearful that he, too, could effectively be used as a bargaining chip.
The uncertainty is excruciating, Kubra says. For the first 3 months after her husband was arrested, “Every cell in my body was aching because of the pain in my soul,” she says. “My life turned upside down and I felt like my family was falling apart.”
Hers is only one of many families in limbo.