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.


Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

Updated 18 October 2019

Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

  • Despite vote for change in the country, there seems to be no end of frustration among young people

SFAX/TUNISIA: It only took 10 minutes for Fakher Hmidi to slip out of his house, past the cafes where unemployed men spend their days, and reach the creek through the mud flats where a small boat would ferry him to the migrant ship heading from Tunisia to Italy.

He left late at night, and the first his parents knew of it was the panicked, crying phone call from an Italian mobile number: “The boat is sinking. We’re in danger. Ask mum to forgive me.”

Hmidi, 18, was one of several people from his Thina district of the eastern city of Sfax among the dozens still unaccounted for in this month’s capsizing off the Italian island of Lampedusa, as ever more Tunisians join the migrant trail to Europe.

His loss, and the continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the same dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

In a parliamentary vote on Oct. 6, the day before Hmidi’s boat sank just short of the Italian coast, no party won even a quarter of seats and many independents were elected instead. On Sunday, the political outsider Kais Saied was elected president.

In the Hmidis’ modest home, whose purchase was subsidized by the government and on which the family is struggling to meet the repayment schedule, his parents sit torn with grief.

“Young people here are so frustrated. There are no jobs. They have nothing to do but sit in cafes and drink coffee or buy drugs,” said Fakher’s father, Mokhtar, 55.

Mokhtar lost his job as a driver two years ago and has not been able to find work since. Fakher’s mother, Zakia, sells brik, a fried Tunisian egg snack, to bring in a little extra money. His two elder sisters, Sondes, 29, and Nahed, 24, work in a clothes shop.

Much of the little they had went to Fakher, the family said, because they knew he was tempted by the idea of going to Europe. At night the family would sit on their roof and see the smuggler boats setting off. The seashore was “like a bus station,” they said.

 

Decline

At a cafe near the Hmidis’ home, a few dozen mostly young men sat at tables, drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Mongi Krim, 27, said he would take the next boat to Europe if he could find enough money to pay for the trip even though, he said, he has lost friends at sea.

A survey by the Arab Barometer, a research network, said a third of all Tunisians, and more than half of young people, were considering emigrating, up by 50 percent since the 2011 revolution.

The aid agency Mercy Corps said last year that a new surge of migration from Tunisia began in 2017, a time when the economy was dipping.

Krim is unemployed but occasionally finds a day or week of work as a casual laborer. He points at the potholes on the road and says even town infrastructure has declined.

For this and the lack of jobs, he blames the government. He did not vote in either the parliamentary or the presidential election. “Why would I? It is all the same. There is no change,” he said.

Unemployment is higher among young people than anyone else in Tunisia. In the first round of the presidential election on Sept. 15, and in the parliamentary election, in which voter turnout was low, they also abstained by the highest margin.

When an apparently anti-establishment candidate, Kais Saied, went through to the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, young people backed him overwhelmingly.

But their support for a candidate touting a clear break from normal post-revolutionary politics only underscored their frustration at the direction Tunisia took under past leaders.

At the table next to Krim, Haddaj Fethi, 32, showed the inky finger that proved he had voted on Sunday. “I cannot imagine a young man who would not have voted for Saied,” he said.

On the bare patch of mud by the creek where Fakher Hmidi took the boat, some boys were playing. For them, the migration to Europe is — as it was for Hmidi — a constant background possibility in a country that offers them few other paths.

SPEEDREAD

The continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

At the time of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, they had great hope, Mohkhtar Hmidi said. But economically, things got worse. Fakher found little hope in politics, he said.

Despite the apparent surge of young support for Saied as president, he has been careful to make no promises about what Tunisia’s future holds, only to pledge his personal probity and insist that he will rigidly uphold the law.

The economy is in any case not the president’s responsibility, but that of a government formed by parties in the Parliament, whose fractured nature will make coalition building particularly difficult this year.

Any government that does emerge will face the same dilemmas as its predecessors — tackling high unemployment, high inflation, a lower dinar and the competing demands of powerful unions and foreign lenders.

An improvement would come too late for the Hmidi family, still waiting nearly two weeks later for confirmation that their only son has drowned.

“Fakher told me he wanted to go to France. ‘This is my dream,’ he said to me. ‘There is no future here. You can’t find a job. How can I?’,” Mokhtar said, and his wife started to cry.