By Emil DanielyanA Turkish scholar facing up to eight years in prison for trying to take old books out of Armenia insisted on his innocence in a Yerevan court on Friday as prosecutors pressed the unusually harsh smuggling charges leveled against him.
Yektan Turkyilmaz, who was arrested at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport almost two months ago, pleaded not guilty to the most serious of the accusations and reiterated that he was unaware of an Armenian law that requires a government permission for the export of such books and other “cultural values” from the country.
“I did not aim to violate the laws of the Republic of Armenia or to inflict any damage on Armenia or the Armenian people,” the 33-year-old Ph.D. student of the U.S. Duke University told a district court in Yerevan hearing the controversial case. He admitted having made some “mistakes” but said they were not intentional.
However, the trial prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan, stated in his opening remarks that Turkyilmaz knew about the legal requirement and lied to Armenian customs officers as he checked for a Yerevan-Istanbul flight on June 17. “He committed a crime defined by Section 2 of Article 215 of the Armenian Criminal Code,” Piloyan said, referring to a clause that calls for between four and eight years’ imprisonment for the smuggling of cultural artifacts, narcotics, firearms and even weapons of mass destruction.
The National Security Service (NSS), the Armenian successor to the Soviet-era KGB which conducted the pre-trial inquiry, confiscated from the scholar 89 Armenian-language books published more than 50 years ago. The prosecution estimates their total value at 2.1 million drams ($4,600). Seven of the books, including two 17th century Bibles, are said to be particularly rare.
That the ex-KGB was instrumental in Turkyilmaz’s arrest and prosecution was confirmed at the trial. It emerged that NSS officers stopped Turkyilmaz and had customs officers double-check his baggage just as he was about to board the Istanbul-bound plane. It is not clear what prompted them to do that. The Turkish national had already passed customs and passport control and checked in his two suit cases where most of the books were later found stashed.
The very fact of NSS agents checking a foreign passenger is extraordinary in itself. Sources familiar with the case told RFE/RL earlier that the security agency initially suspected Turkyilmaz of espionage but lacked the evidence to prosecute him on relevant charges. Piloyan refused to comment on the claims. The prosecutor also said NSS officers involved in the arrest will not testify at the trial.
The court cross-examined instead several traders from a popular souvenir market in Yerevan from whom Turkyilmaz bought the books. They all said they are not quite familiar the existing procedures for the export of artifacts and could not give the buyer appropriate advice. Babken Sakanian, who sold Turkyilmaz the seven most valuable books for a total of $3,200, said he heard about the passage earlier this year of Armenia’s Law on the Export and Import of Cultural Values but still has “no idea” about its provisions.
The law stipulates that any book printed more than 50 years ago has a high “historical and cultural value” and can not be taken out of Armenia without a written authorization of the Ministry of Culture. The prosecution maintains that Turkyilmaz was aware of the requirement.
Piloyan pointed to the pre-trial testimony by the owner of an antique shop in the city center which the defendant repeatedly visited in June. The man, Armen Khorenian, said in it that he warned Turkyilmaz of the need to have such a permission. But Khorenian appeared to contradict his written account during Friday's cross-examination in the court. “It is very possible that Yektan didn’t understand what I meant,” he said.
The prosecutor’s claims were also in conflict with the court testimony of one of the customs officers that questioned Turkyilmaz at the Zvartnots airport. “It seemed to me that he is not familiar with the law,” Hayk Stepanian said. He added that foreigners generally lack knowledge of Armenian customs regulations.