Turkey frees jailed American NASA scientist amid F-35 row

A former NASA scientist who was imprisoned in Turkey after the failed 2016 coup has been set free. His release comes amid faltering negotiations between Washington and Ankara over the F-35 fighter jet.

Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-American citizen jailed more than two years ago, was released from custody Wednesday, the scientist’s wife confirmed to reporters.

“I just talked to him on the phone. He is going back to his family,” she told the New York Times. “He was shocked.”

Golge – formerly a NASA research scientist who worked in Houston, Texas – was imprisoned while visiting family in southern Turkey in 2016, just weeks after a coup plot roiled the country. Authorities said Golge worked for Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of orchestrating the failed coup plot and considered a terrorist by the Turkish government.

Some 45,000 people have been arrested since the coup attempt, including journalists, judges and lawmakers, in what many have deemed a political “purge.”

Golge was tried on terrorism charges in a Turkish court, found guilty and sentenced to 7.5 years in the Iskenderun prison. He would spend weeks in solitary confinement, according to an American journalist who met him in prison.

Releasing Golge was the “right thing to do,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters on Wednesday, declining to elaborate on why he was freed now.

Washington and Ankara are currently embroiled in a war of words over the purchase of F-35 fighter jets, which the US says it will refuse to provide if Turkey goes through with a missile defense deal with Russia. Ankara has eyed Russia’s S-400 missile defense system for some time, but Washington argues the system is not compatible with existing NATO defense infrastructure.

Other recent moves in Washington may have motivated the decision to free Golge. A bipartisan bill introduced in early April by Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) called on Turkey to release any other wrongfully detained Americans, as well as three jailed Turkish citizens who worked at US diplomatic offices.

Last October, Turkey freed another American national, Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was also among those arrested after the 2016 coup.