By Gayane Danielian
A Turkish scholar who researched Ottoman history in Armenia’s state archives has been arrested on charges of attempting to smuggle old Armenian books seen as cultural treasures by law-enforcement authorities out of the country.
The National Security Service (NSS) said in a statement late Friday that Yeftan Turkyilmaz, 33, was detained at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport as he was about to board a plane bound for Istanbul. The statement said he carried undeclared Armenian-language books about history, religion and geography published from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The security agency described them as “literature of high historical and cultural value.” Under Armenian law such items can not be taken out of the country without a permission from the Ministry of Culture.
Turkyilmaz, who spent more than one month in Armenia, was charged under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that carries heavy fines and up to five years in prison. The NSS refused to officially comment on the case. But sources there told RFE/RL that the Armenian successor to the Soviet-era KGB is unlikely to seek a jail sentence for the Turkish national.
A doctoral student at the Duke University in North Carolina, Turkyilmaz became last month the first Turkish historian who sought and was given access to the Armenian National Archive. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said he is working with documents relating to activities of Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian nationalist parties during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire.
Armenian officials portrayed Turkyilmaz’s presence as proof that the Armenian archives have always been open to Turkish researchers. Turkey’s government has repeatedly urged Yerevan in recent months to make documents kept in the available to them as part of its push for a joint Turkish-Armenian study of the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Turkyilmaz suggested on May 11 that he became the first Turk to work with the archives because very few of his colleagues in Turkey speak Armenian.
It is not clear how the scholar got hold of the old books. He was said to be experiencing financial difficulties and enjoyed discount fees for accessing archival materials. The National Acrhive director, Amatuni Virabian, said he thinks Turkyilmaz did not deliberately break Armenian laws or regulations.
“He showed interest in books and I gave him a few [recently published] books,” Virabian told RFE/RL. “But I didn’t know that he bought old books. You can transport anything except arms and drugs out of Turkey. I guess the guy thought things are the same here.”
“In any case, we are now in a silly situation,” he added.