By Emil Danielyan
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian reacted on Tuesday with relief to the release of a Turkish scholar arrested in Armenia on controversial smuggling charges last June, admitting that his imprisonment would have damaged Yerevan’s international standing.
Oskanian said he believes that Yektan Turkyilmaz, a doctoral student at the U.S. Duke University, should not have been put on trial for trying to take old books out of Armenia without a government permission required by the law.
“Of course, I wish the trial had not taken place,” Oskanian said, revealing his unease about the international fallout from the case. “But let us acknowledge the fact that Yektan violated a law. I think our customs officers performed their duties,” he added.
A Turkish citizen of Kurdish descent, Turkyilmaz was set free in the court on August 16 after being given a two-year suspended prison sentence for attempting to illegally take about 90 Armenian books published more than 50 years ago to Turkey. Under Armenian law, they can not be taken abroad without a written authorization of the Culture Ministry. Turkyilmaz insisted during his trial that he was unaware of the requirement.
The 33-year-old scholar faced smuggling charges that carry between four and eight years’ imprisonment. This fact drew strong protests from over 250 U.S., Turkish and Diaspora Armenian intellectuals who said the punishment initially sought by Armenian prosecutors is too harsh. Also condemning the charges were the president of Duke University and Bob Dole, a former pro-Armenian U.S. senator.
“There was a court ruling and I am glad that the issue found such a solution because it could indeed have been interpreted in a different way,” said Oskanian. “No matter how you explained it, the outside world would politicize and view this in the context of Armenian-Turkish relations, especially with regard to archives and genocide recognition. I am really happy that Yektan has already been released from prison and will resume his studies as well as his research on the Armenian genocide.”
Turkyilmaz is one of the few Turkish historians who openly disagree with the official Turkish line on the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Official Ankara denies that they constituted a genocide.
Turkyilmaz became last May the first Turkish national who requested and was granted access to Armenia’s state archives. The Turkish government claimed until then that those archives are not open to Turkish researchers. Sources have told RFE/RL that the Armenian Foreign Ministry warned the National Security Service, the Armenian successor to the Soviet-era KGB, that Turkyilmaz’s prosecution could give weight to Ankara’s claims.
But Oskanian effectively denied this. “There was no intervention on our part,” he said.
Sources privy to the investigation also say that the NSS arrested Turkyilmaz at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport on June 17 on suspicion of espionage but could not find any evidence to prosecute him on corresponding charges.
Turkyilmaz, meanwhile, is still in Yerevan, awaiting the formal entry into force of the court verdict on Wednesday. He will then be free to leave the country.