Turkey frees US scientist but tensions remain

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a conference on judicial reform strategy in Ankara, Turkey, on May 30, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Updated 30 May 2019

Turkey frees US scientist but tensions remain

  • Serkan Golge was freed shortly after Erdogan spoke by telephone with US President Donald Trump
  • Turkish authorities charged Golge with ties to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen

WASHING: Turkey on Wednesday released a NASA scientist with dual US-Turkish citizenship whose nearly three-year detention had soured relations, but the NATO allies remained divided over issues including Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile system.
Serkan Golge, a naturalized US citizen working for the US space agency in Houston, was arrested in July 2016 on a visit back to Turkey in the aftermath of a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish authorities charged Golge with ties to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accused of orchestrating the mutiny. Golge was sentenced in 2018 to seven and a half years in prison despite US State Department protests that there was no credible evidence.
His wife, Kubra Golge, expressed joy at his release but said that he remained banned from traveling outside Turkey.
“We are happy but he still rejects the charges against him,” she told AFP by email. “Hope we can come back soon to the US.”
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that the United States would press for Golge to be able to return to the United States “as soon as possible.”
“We want to commend them for doing the right thing today by releasing him,” Ortagus told reporters. “We think it’s welcome news.”
Ortagus said that the United States was still seeking the release of detained local employees of US diplomatic missions in Turkey.
Golge was freed shortly after Erdogan spoke by telephone with US President Donald Trump, although an official summary by Turkey did not mention discussion of the Golge case.
Turkey in October also released an American pastor caught up in the crackdown, Andrew Brunson. His case had become a cause celebre among the conservative Christian base of Trump, who pressed Turkey through tariffs that sent the lira currency into a tailspin.
Golge’s case had triggered growing anger in the United States. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced a bill seeking sanctions on Turkish officials involved in the detention of US citizens, saying that Ankara’s actions did not befit a NATO ally.
But Turkey still is at risk of US sanctions over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. Washington is pressing Ankara to instead buy the US Patriot equivalent.
Erdogan has said the S-400 purchase was a “done deal” but in the phone call with Trump reiterated an offer to form a joint working group on the decision, according to the Turkish president’s office.
The State Department voiced appreciation for Turkey as an ally but reiterated concerns about the deal, which US officials say could help Russia hone its system to target US hardware used by NATO.
“We’re willing to engage with the Turkish government but our position remains the same that Turkey will face very real and very negative consequences if it completes the delivery of the S-400,” Ortagus said.
The United States has already suspended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program, in which Turkey had invested $1 billion.
Washington and Ankara have also clashed over Syria, with Trump promising to pull out all 2,000 US troops from the war-battered nation following a December phone conversation with Erdogan.
Trump has since slowed down the withdrawal partly because his aides fear that Turkey will use the absence of US troops to strike Syrian Kurdish fighters. The forces helped defeat extremists from the Daesh group, but Ankara associates them with separatists at home.


Hardline Guards make early gains in restricted Iran election

Updated 13 min 10 sec ago

Hardline Guards make early gains in restricted Iran election

  • A clean sweep for hard-liners would confirm the political demise of the country’s pragmatist politicians
  • However, Iranian authorities have yet to announce the turnout in the race for the 290-seat legislature

DUBAI: Candidates affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards looked on course to win a parliamentary majority on Saturday, reportedly leading in the race in Tehran and towns and villages elsewhere, after a vote stacked in favor of the anti-American hard-liners.
An Interior Ministry official said a list of candidates affiliated with the Guards led in the capital, and lists linked to hard-liners captured 55 seats in towns and villages across the country following Friday’s vote.
A clean sweep for hard-liners would confirm the political demise of the country’s pragmatist politicians, weakened by Washington’s decision to quit a 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.
However, Iranian authorities have yet to announce the turnout in the race for the 290-seat legislature — a litmus test of the popularity of hard-liners closely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Khamenei.
Iran’s rulers, under intense US pressure over the country’s nuclear program, need a high turnout to boost their legitimacy, damaged after nationwide protests in November.
Such a result would help the Guards, already omnipresent in Iranians’ daily lives, to increase their already substantial influence in political, social and economic affairs.
The demonstrations, which called for regime change, were met with a violent crackdown overseen by the Guards which killed hundreds and led to the arrest of thousands, according to human rights organizations.
Iranians long for stability after a succession of political and economic crises.

Mounting US pressure
In the latest challenge for Khamenei, Iran announced 10 new cases of coronavirus were detected, one of whom has died. The new infections bring the total cases of new coronavirus in the country to 28, with five of the total having died.
Khamenei faces mounting pressure from the United States over Iran’s nuclear program and discontent over mismanagement over the economy is unlikely to ease as sanctions squeeze the Islamic Republic.
President Donald Trump raised the stakes in his standoff with Tehran when Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport in January.
The spokesman for the watchdog Guardian Council Abbasali Kadkhodai predicted that the turnout will be around 50%, telling state television on Friday that the Iranian nation had disappointed its enemies by voting in large numbers.
Turnout was 62% in the 2016 parliamentary vote and 66% of people voted in 2012.
Large gains in Friday’s vote may also hand hard-liners another bonus — more leeway to campaign for the 2021 contest for president, a job with wide day-to-day control of government.
Parliamentary elections have little impact on Iran’s foreign or nuclear policies, which are set by Khamenei, and major pro-reform parties have been either banned or dismantled since 2009.
But the vote shows shifts in the factional balance of power in Iran’s unique dual system of clerical and republican rule.
The Guardian Council, a hard-line vetting body, has disqualified 6,850 hopefuls out of 14,000, ranging from moderates to conservatives, from contesting parliament polls. About a third of sitting lawmakers have also been barred.