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.”