Mother Pleads For Turkish Scholar's Release From Armenian Jail
RFE/RL Armenia Report - 08/08/2005
By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The mother of a Turkish researcher facing up to eight years in prison for attempting to take old books out of Armenia pleaded with the authorities in Yerevan on Monday to set him free and end his controversial prosecution.
Gulsin Turkyilmaz spoke to RFE/RL after visiting her 33-year-old son Yektan in a maximum security prison in Yerevan where he has been kept since his arrest on June 17. `I hope that they won't imprison him,' she said. `If he knew that [he is violating Armenian laws] he wouldn't do that.'
`Yektan would never do any harm to this country,' she added.
Turkyilmaz was allowed to see his mother the day before the start of his trial which is expected to be attended by representatives of Duke University in North Carolina where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Ottoman history. The unusually harsh charges leveled against him have drawn protests from U.S. academic circles, prominent Turkish intellectuals and a retired pro-Armenian U.S. senator.
The first Turkish academic to be granted access to Armenia's national archives, Turkyilmaz is prosecuted under Article 215 of the Armenian Criminal Code that calls for between 4 and 8 years' imprisonment for the contraband of anything ranging from antique books to weapons of mass destruction. He was detained at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport while boarding a plane bound for Istanbul.
Turkyilmaz, who is fluent in Armenian and several other foreign languages, carried 88 Armenian books which he bought or was presented with in Yerevan. Seven of those books, including a 17th century Bible, were particularly old and required government permission for being taken abroad. The doctoral candidate told investigators and his mother that he was unaware of that requirement.
`After all, books like that are available for sale in Armenia,' one of his Armenian attorneys, Vartuhi Elbakian, told RFE/RL.
`Yektan bought them without violating the law,' argued the other lawyer, Hrair Ghukasian.
Individuals detained while trying to smuggle cultural treasures have rarely been imprisoned in Armenia. Such cases usually end in heavy fines and the confiscation of those artifacts.
Sources familiar with the case claim that Armenia's National Security Service (NSS) considered charging Turkyilmaz with espionage before bringing the draconian smuggling accusations. The NSS has refused to divulge any details of the investigation before the trial.
Turkey's government has still not officially commented on the prosecution of the Turkish national. Turkyilmaz is among few Turks who have publicly challenged Ankara's vehement denial of the 1915-1923 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
In Elbakian's words, a leading Turkish pro-establishment daily referred to the scholar as `a friend of the Armenians' shortly after his arrest. `We are worried that if he is freed and returns to Turkey he could face prosecution there,' the lawyer said.
Meanwhile, the case is gaining a growing international resonance, with more than 200 scholars from the United States, Turkey and Armenia reportedly having signed an open letter to President Robert Kocharian that calls for their colleague's immediate release. The letter warned that his imprisonment could `raise serious doubts as to whether Armenia encourages independent scholarly research on its history.'
Among its signatories are Turkish historians Taner Akcam, Murat Belge, Halil Berktay as well as publisher Ragip Zarakolu and one of Turkey's most famous novelists, Orhan Pamuk. They have all described the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians as a genocide despite threats and condemnation from the Turkish establishment.
"As the leader of a great country, you have the ability to intervene in this matter and to determine the appropriateness of the actions of your government and the Armenian prosecutors and police," the Duke University president, Richard Brodhead, said in separate message to Kocharian last week.
Adding his voice to the outcry on August 2 was Bob Dole, a former U.S. Senate majority leader and Republican presidential candidate known for his staunch advocacy of Armenian issues. In a strongly-worded letter to Kocharian posted on Groong.com, he demanded that Turkyilmaz be released `at once,' saying that the Criminal Code article used against him is `unique in the community of free nations.'
Dole warned that failure to release Turkyilmaz would further tarnish Yerevan's already negative image in the West. `Your detention of Yektan for seven weeks on any grounds would draw attention to failings in Armenia's democratic evolution,' he said. `To detain him on grounds as dubious as these calls into question Armenia's commitment to democracy in the first place.'
`Your treatment of Yektan makes Armenia look bad -- with good reason,' he added. `Armenia has many friends in the United States, but we cannot and will not defend the indefensible.'
Bob Dole's Letter
Bob Dole has written a letter to Robert Kocharian urging him to free Yektan Turkyilmaz. Below are the full contents of the letter:
Senator Bob Dole
601 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
North Building, 10th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20004
August 2, 2005
H.E. Robert Kocharian
Republic of Armenia
Dear Mr. President:
I am writing to urge you to release Mr. Yektan Turkyilmaz, a Duke University graduate student who has been detained in Armenia since June 17. As I understand it, Yektan broke an obscure law that prohibits exportation of any book--regardless of its rarity, historical significance, or value--more than fifty years old. I also understand, however, that he has been jailed without being charged, and that your authorities intend to hold him indefinitely pending the filing of charges and an eventual trial.
Duke University officials asked me to intervene because I am a longstanding friend of Armenia and because my wife, Senator Elizabeth Dole, is an alumna and former trustee of the university. Elizabeth and I remain prominent supporters of your country, but the issues raised by Yektan's detention go beyond our ties to Armenia and past support by raising questions about Armenia's democratic progress and commitment to the rule of law.
Yektan's detention would seem to highlight problems cited in numerous human rights reports about Armenia, including those of Freedom House and the U.S. State Department. Freedom House, upon which Members of Congress rely to evaluate requests for U.S. aid, does not rank Armenia as a democracy, and further lowered its already unflattering "partly free" rating last year due to your government's mistreatment of opposition leaders and supporters. Your detention of Yektan for seven weeks on any grounds would draw attention to failings in Armenia's democratic evolution. To detain him on grounds as dubious as these calls into question Armenia's commitment to democracy in the first place.
Yesterday, I was pleased to learn that Dr. Vartan Gregorian has offered to post bail for Yektan, but allowing bail only addresses the symptoms resulting from the larger issues at stake in this case. I urge you to investigate the actions of your government, prosecutors and police and release Yektan at once. I also urge you to ask your legislature to examine this strange law, which, if not unique in the world, is certainly unique in the community of free nations.
Your treatment of Yektan makes Armenia look bad--with good reason. Armenia has many friends in the United States, but we cannot and will not defend the indefensible. Thank you for your consideration, and good luck in your continuing service to the people and nation of Armenia.
Letter From Academics
The following letter has been signed by more than 200 academics from the United States, Turkey, Armenia and elsewhere in support of Duke student Yektan Turkyilmaz who is being detained in Armenia on charges of taking books out of the country without permission.
President of the Republic of Armenia
We write to you today to express our grave concern about Yektan Turkyilmaz and his pending trial in Armenia. Mr. Turkyilmaz is a Ph.D. student at Duke University in the United States. He is a Turkish citizen who was arrested on June 17, 2005, as he was leaving Armenia. He has been held under high security conditions at the National Security Service building in Yerevan ever since his arrest. Last week, the request to release him on bail, accompanied by personal guarantees of a member of the Armenian Parliament and a prominent Armenian- American historian, was turned down. It now appears that Mr. Turkyilmaz will stand trial on customs violation charges under Article 215 Paragraph 2 of the Armenian Criminal Code, which includes a prison sentence of 4 to 8 years.
Mr. President, we the undersigned care deeply about improvements in Armenian-Turkish relations and consider the unimpeded work of independent scholars to be a sine qua non of vital steps in the right direction. The way that Mr. Turkyilmaz has been treated is setting a negative precedent.
Yektan Turkyilmaz is fluent in six languages, including Armenian, and has been the first Turkish scholar to work in the Armenian National Archives. His dissertation research at a leading American university is being supported by several prestigious awards. We understand that he has been questioned about his research and theoretical orientations, and the digital copies of his archival research have been confiscated. There can be no justification for this treatment.
Furthermore, we understand that he is now being charged with attempting to take old books out of Armenia without permission. We understand that none of the books he had with him were absolutely prohibited from being taken out of the country, but only required permissions. We are convinced that Mr. Turkyilmaz did not know about this requirement at the time and would have undoubtedly complied with this requirement as he has demonstrated to be a serious scholar and a friend of Armenian culture on many occasions. We recognize that laws have to be applied consistently under rule of law. However, as the investigator in charge of this case states, the current law places no obligation on the sellers of old books to inform the purchasers that special permissions will be needed to take the books out of the country, and makes no distinction between violations involving nuclear weapons and books. While it may be appropriate to impose a fine for the unknowing violation of customs regulations, prison terms of 4 to 8 years are grossly disproportionate and would send a deterrent signal to other independent scholars.
The political implications of this arrest cause grave concern. Yektan Turkyilmaz is one of a very few Turkish scholars who have critically tackled the events of 1915 and other instances of political violence in the first part of this century. Being the only researcher who can understand Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian at the same time (besides English and French), his research promises to add new dimensions to the study of a very troubled historical period in Anatolia and the South Caucasus. The fact that he was arrested soon after he gained access as the first Turkish scholar to the Armenian National Archives adds to these concerns. The fragile space of dialogue that has recently been opened up between Turkish and Armenian scholars is put to the risk of being greatly damaged by Turkyilmaz~Rs prolonged detention. This arrest would also raise serious doubts as to whether Armenia encourages independent scholarly research on its history.
Mr. President, we respectfully urge you to intervene to ensure that this unfortunate state of affairs comes to a swift and amicable end. We request the immediate release of Yektan Turkyilmaz and a return of his digital research material so that he can continue his scholarly activities.
Committee for Solidarity with Yektan Turkyilmaz
For more information, contact:
John F. Burness, Senior Vice President for Public
Affairs and Government Relations |
919-681-3788 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Conclusion - Yektan Goes Free
Turkish Scholar Freed After Two-Month Arrest In Armenia
Yektan Turkyilmaz, a Turkish scholar who was arrested in Armenia two months ago, walked free from a court in Yerevan on Tuesday after being given a two-year suspended prison sentence for attempting to illegally take old Armenian books out of the country.
The court in the city's Malatia-Sebastia district convicted Turkyilmaz of two counts of smuggling but chose not to imprison him at the last-minute request of state prosecutors that cited his partial acknowledgement of his guilt and cooperation with investigators. The doctoral student of the U.S. Duke University will have to stay in Armenia until the verdict's formal entry into force on August 31. He will then be free to leave the country and visit it again.
`I'm now free, right?' an incredulous Turkyilmaz asked journalists that surrounded him immediately after the announcement of the ruling. `I am happy to be free,' he said after hearing a positive answer. `I now want to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation. I was, I am and I will remain a friend of the Armenians.'
The presiding judge, Karen Farkhoyan, also upheld the confiscation of 88 secondhand Armenian books which Turkyilmaz bought in Yerevan and wanted to take with him to Istanbul. All of those books were published more than 50 years ago, with four of them dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Under an Armenian law that took effect last January, they can not be taken abroad without a written permission of the Ministry of Culture.
Turkyilmaz had no such permission when customs and security officers at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport found and confiscated those books on June 17. Both during his arrest and throughout his short trial he insisted that he was unaware of the requirement. Nonetheless, he was charged under an article of Armenia's Criminal Code that envisages between four and eight years' imprisonment for the contraband of `cultural-historical values,' narcotics and weapons.
`I believe that the accusations leveled against the defendant are absolutely substantiated,' the trial prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan, said in his concluding remarks.
Piloyan dismissed the defendant's arguments that the books, most of them relating to the activities of Armenian nationalist parties in the Ottoman Empire, were needed for his doctoral studies at the prestigious U.S. university. `I don't want to discuss his doctoral dissertation or events that took place in Anatolia from 1908-38,' he said. `We are investigating a criminal case regarding smuggling.'
The prosecutor then cited `mitigating circumstances' such as the defendant's young age and his `at least partly truthful court testimony' to invoke another clause in the Criminal Code that envisages largely symbolic prison sentences.
`I regret what happened and accept that as a result of my inconsistency and indifference, I did not know legal requirements existing in the Republic of Armenia and failed to obtain permission for the books in a manner defined by the law,' Turkyilmaz send in his final court speech which he delivered in Armenian.
`As I said earlier, I never sought to violate the laws of the Republic of Armenia or to cause any damage to the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian people,' he added. `I therefore ask the court to be forgiving to myself and apply the softest possible punishment.'
Turkyilmaz's release was welcomed by Orin Starn, a representative of Duke University who attended the trial. `Duke University is very pleased that Yektan has been given his freedom,' Starn told RFE/RL. `The books that Yektan collected were a reflection of his interest in Armenia. I know that Yektan will do wonderful work that will help us to understand the history of this region and the facts of the Armenian genocide.'
The Duke University president as well as over 200 U.S., Turkish and Armenian scholars have sent open letters to President Robert Kocharian calling for the release of their colleague. They said the punishment initially sought by Armenian prosecutors is too strict and unjustified. It is not clear if their protests have played a role in the prosecutors' eventual decision not to seek the imprisonment of the Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin. Officials in Kocharian's press service could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Individuals accused of smuggling have rarely ended up in prison in Armenia. This fact raised questions about reasons for the severity of the charges brought against Turkyilmaz. The latter's interrogations by officials from the National Security Service (NSS), which conducted the pre-trial investigation into the case, reportedly focused on his academic work and political beliefs.
The electronic copies of his research material collected at Armenia's National Archive were also confiscated and closely examined by NSS investigators. The Malatia-Sebastia court ordered them to return the CDs to the scholar.
Turkyilmaz, who has repeatedly visited Armenia since 2003, became last May the first Turkish national who asked for and was granted access to the Armenian state archives. He said on Tuesday that despite his two-month ordeal he wants to conduct more research at the archives and may again visit them as early as this week.
`I have not yet finished my work there and am glad that I will stay in Yerevan for 15 more days,' Turkyilmaz told reporters. `I love this city.'