By Emil Danielyan and Anna Saghabalian
Raffi Hovannisian, a prominent Armenian opposition politician, on Friday strongly condemned the arrest and prosecution of Turkish historian Yektan Turkyilmaz, saying that it is dealing a “powerful blow” to the long-running efforts at international recognition of the Armenian genocide.
He charged that by seeking to imprison Turkyilmaz on smuggling charges the Armenian authorities have exposed their “false patriotism” and serious problems with the rule of law in the country.
“It is hard to imagine a more powerful blow to international affirmation of the Armenian genocide than this trial,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL as he attended the second court hearing on the case in an apparent show of solidarity with the jailed scholar.
“In my view, real patriotism means the laws of the Republic of Armenia that deal with smuggling, corruption, espionage and high treason should be enforced equally against all citizens, including the current president, members of his family as well as all the ministers and their relatives,” he said.
Turkyilmaz, who researched Ottoman history at the National Archive in Yerevan, was charged with deliberately attempting to smuggle rare Armenian books to Turkey last June. However, even individuals convicted of more serious smuggling have rarely ended up in jail in Armenia. Hence, growing questions about reasons for the unusually harsh punishment sought by the Armenian law-enforcement authorities.
Hovannisian, who served as Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1991-92 and now leads an opposition party called Zharangutyun (Heritage), believes that the scholar was simply not aware of Armenian customs regulations. “I think Yektan violated the Armenian laws apparently without realizing that,” he said. “Let him and his colleagues know and respect those laws from now on. They must also be free to access our state archive. The matter should not have reached the court in the first place.”
Similar arguments have been made by more than 200 Turkish, U.S. and Armenian scholars that have signed an open letter to President Robert Kocharian calling for their colleague’s immediate release. Kocharian has still not reacted to the letter.
Among its signatories is Richard Hovannisian, the Zharangutyun leader’s father and a prominent U.S. historian of Armenian descent. He has even offered to post bail to secure Turkyilmaz’s release pending trial. The U.S.-born ex-minister said the authorities not only rejected the offer but also reneged on their pledge to allow his father to visit Turkyilmaz in a maximum security jail in Yerevan.
Incidentally, the letter to Kocharian was initiated by prominent Turkish intellectuals who openly challenge Ankara’s continuing denial of the Armenian genocide. Turkyilmaz, who is an ethnic Kurd, has also questioned the official Turkish line on the mass killings of Armenians in 1915-1918. Fluent in Armenian, he became last May the first Turkish historian to be granted access to the Armenian archive.
“The vast majority of Turks who signed the open letter to President Kocharian have pro-Armenian views,” said Rober Hadeller, editor of Istanbul’s Armenian-language “Marmara” daily. “They want the guy to be set free as soon as possible.”
Speaking to RFE/RL by phone, Hadeller said he and other prominent Istanbul Armenians agree with their demands. “The crime which he is accused of having committed doesn’t seem that serious to us,” he said. “After all, he claims to have bought those books in a market. One is left to wonder if there are some other motives behind this case that are unknown to us.”
The Turkish government has not yet officially reacted to its citizen’s arrest. But according to the “Marmara” editor, the issue is being increasingly covered by the Turkish press. “Everyone is wondering why the Armenian authorities have resorted to such a strict measure against the first Turkish historian who worked with the Armenian archives,” he said. “The fact that his notes and research documents were also confiscated is seen as the most outrageous.”
Hovannisian, meanwhile, suggested that Ankara could exploit the case to substantiate its claims that Yerevan has not opened its genocide-related archives and is hampering independent scholarly research of Armenian history. “In essence, this is a serious propaganda victory for the party denying the genocide and a serious defeat for the people who suffered the genocide,” he said. “As a citizen of this country, I feel ashamed while following the court proceedings.”