By Emil Danielyan
A representative of the prestigious Duke University in the United States reiterated on Monday its calls for the release of a Turkish doctoral student who is standing trial in Armenia for allegedly trying to smuggle old books to Turkey.
Armenian prosecutors, however, remained clearly unwilling to drop their unusually harsh charges brought against Yektan Turkyilmaz despite his insistence that he was unaware of Armenian laws regulating the export of objects that are deemed “cultural or historical values.” The 33-year-old scholar also exposed his frustration with his two-month incarceration as he was cross-examined in a district court in Yerevan.
“We are very concerned about Yektan’s case,” Orin Starn, a Duke University professor and Turkyilmaz’s doctoral advisor, told RFE/RL as he attended the trial. “We know that he is a wonderful person and a brilliant scholar. We know that he has committed to speaking about the facts of 1915, the Armenian genocide.”
“I’m here to let it be known that Duke University fully supports Yektan,” he said. “I am the supervisor of his dissertation and I can not believe that he would knowingly break the law in any way. So I hope for his speedy release.”
The president of Duke University, Richard Brodhead, wrote to President Robert Kocharian on August 1, calling for the scholar’s release. "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," he said. Kocharian has not yet responded to the letter, according to Starn.
Turkyilmaz was arrested at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport on June 17 as he boarded a plane bound for Istanbul. Customs and security officials found him carrying 89 secondhand books on Armenian history and culture that were published more than 50 years ago. Under an Armenian law that came into force last January, they can not be taken out of the country without a written authorization of the Ministry of Culture.
Turkyilmaz insists that he was not aware of the requirement. However, this has not kept the authorities from prosecuting him under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that envisages between four and eight years in prison.
Many scholars in the United States and Turkey believe that the offence was not serious enough to warrant imprisonment. More than 200 of them have signed an open letter to Kocharian that demands an end to the controversial prosecution. Among the letter’s signatories are prominent Turkish intellectuals that recognize the 1915-1918 Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey as genocide as well as Hrant Dink, editor of the Istanbul-based Armenian newspaper “Agos.”
Dink was also present at Monday’s court proceedings in Yerevan. “It must be admitted that Yektan certainly did something wrong with regard to the laws of the Republic of Armenia,” he told RFE/RL. “But Yektan is not a criminal. He is a serious intellectual. He committed a serious offence unintentionally and you just can’t use books for criminal prosecution. Such things are not accepted in the world.”
Dink, who himself is facing a possible jail sentence in Turkey for publicly emphasizing his Armenian heritage, also pointed out that Turkyilmaz is among few Turkish academics who openly question Ankara’s decades-long denial of the Armenian genocide. “We [Istanbul’s Armenian community] have a handful of Turkish intellectuals standing by our side and Yektan is one of them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Turkyilmaz, who has repeatedly visited Armenia in recent years and became last May the first Turkish national to be granted access to the National Archive in Yerevan, again denied the smuggling charges on Monday as he was relentlessly questioned by the trial prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan. “I know that I violated a law but I did that unknowingly and feel guilty for that,” he said.
But according to the indictment read out by Piloyan on Friday, the defendant was aware of the existing procedures for the export of rare books and other artifacts. At the heart of that accusation is the pre-trial written testimony of the owner of an antique shop in Yerevan, Armen Khorenian, who claimed to have warned Turkyilmaz of the need to have an official permission.
But Khorenian appeared to contradict himself on Friday, telling the court that “Yektan may have not understood what I mean.” Several traders from whom Turkyilmaz bought the books, two of them printed in the 17th century, testified that they themselves lack knowledge of the relevant legal requirements and never discussed them with the Turkish scholar.
Turkyilmaz also retracted his own pre-trial statement that he actually sent one Armenian book, published in Venice in 1885, to Istanbul through his sister Zeynep who visited him in Yerevan in late May and early June. That testimony forms the basis of one of the two counts of smuggling on which Turkyilmaz is being prosecuted. Piloyan repeatedly mentioned it during the cross-examination.
The defendant claimed that in reality he gave the book to one of his Yerevan friends and simply did not want the investigators from the National Security Service, the Armenian successor to the Soviet-era KGB, to interrogate him. “I have been visiting Armenia for the past three years and I have developed a circle of friends here and established contacts with academics,” he said, speaking in Turkish through an interpreter. “But because of this case my relationships with them have suffered an incredible damage. Everyone who has dealt with me has been summoned to the KGB for questioning.
“I said that I sent the book to Turkey through my sister because she wasn’t here [during the investigation] and nobody could therefore interrogate her. I have not taken a single book out of Armenia.”
“I have bought only those books that are within the sphere of my professional interest,” he said when asked by Piloyan about reasons for his interest in old Armenian books. “I never regarded them as cultural relics. They were of interest to me only from the intellectual and academic standpoint.”
Turkyilmaz looked increasingly frustrated and showed signs of despair as he was grilled by the prosecutor. “I’ve been in such a mental state during my detention that I don’t know if it can be cured afterwards,” he stated at one point.
(Photo courtesy of Onnik Krikorian, www.oneworld.am: Turkyilmaz, right, sitting in the dock alongside his Armenian interpreter.)