By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A Turkish scholar who researched Ottoman history in Armenia’s state archives went on trial in Yerevan on Tuesday nearly two months after his controversial arrest on smuggling charges which caused an uproar in U.S. and Turkish academic circles.
Yektan Turkyilmaz, a 33-year-old doctoral student at the U.S. Duke University, is facing between four and eight years in prison for trying take old books out of Armenia without a mandatory government permission.
The opening session of the trial adjourned less than an hour after its beginning at the request of one of Turkyilmaz’s newly hired lawyers who said he needs more time to familiarize himself with the case. The presiding judge at the court of first instance in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district scheduled the next hearing for Friday. Among those attending the first hearing were local human rights activists and officials from the U.S. embassy in Armenia.
Turkyilmaz, who became last May the first Turkish scholar to be granted access to the Armenian National Archive, was charged under Article 215 of Armenia’s Criminal Code which envisages equally tough punishment for smuggling of cultural treasures and weapons of mass destruction. He insisted during the pre-trial investigation that he was unaware of Armenian laws regulating the export of old books and other artifacts and therefore does not deserve imprisonment.
Turkyilmaz has attracted strong support from fellow academics in the United States, Turkey and Armenia. More than 200 of them have signed an open letter to President Robert Kocharian describing the accusations as “disproportionate” and calling for his release. Also demanding his liberation was Bob Dole, a former pro-Armenian member of the U.S. Senate. “To detain him on grounds as dubious as these calls into question Armenia's commitment to democracy in the first place,” Dole wrote to Kocharian last week.
Individuals convicted of smuggling have rarely ended up in jail in Armenia. Hence, growing questions about reasons for the severity of the charges leveled against the Turkish national of Kurdish extraction. The chief prosecutor at the trial, Koryun Piloyan, refused to explain them on Tuesday.
“You don’t look at the issue correctly,” Piloyan told RFE/RL. “[Turkyilmaz’s] deed corresponds to that article of the Criminal Code.”
“Yektan is a good man, there is nothing bad I can say about him,” said Sevan Deirmenjian, an ethnic Armenian citizen of Turkey who is pursuing a doctoral degree at Yerevan State University and befriended Turkyilmaz after meeting the latter in Armenia.
Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, was also at the trial and urged the authorities not to give the defendant a prison sentence. “This is not the kind of case where we should demonstrate the strictness of the law,” he said, arguing that Turkyilmaz is among the few Turkish historians who question Ankara’s official line on the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Ishkhanian was among those who were allowed to visit the arrested scholar at a maximum security prison in Yerevan. “He wasn’t particularly unhappy with conditions there,” he told RFE/RL. “His main grievance was his detention. I also remember him saying that he could imagine being arrested in Turkey but never thought that could happen in Armenia.”