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Duke student released by Armenian court after detention

by Jordan Green

A doctoral student at Duke University was released Aug. 16 after being held for two months in a high-security jail in Armenia for violating a law regulating the removal of cultural artifacts. The scholar’s imprisonment spurred support from hundreds of fellow academics from national groups that have in the past remained divided over questions of genocide and nationalism.

Yektan Turkyilmaz, 33, was pulled off a plane at Yerevan Airport in Armenia’s capital city on June 17 at the end of his fourth visit to Armenia. He was there to conduct research for his dissertation on nationalist conflicts between the Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish communities in the region of eastern Anatolia during the period of Turkey’s national formation, according to a website developed by his supporters.

The authorities seized about 100 books Turkyilmaz had purchased at used bookstores and open-air markets, along with several CDs that contained his research. He had planned to fly to Istanbul and later to Paris to work on his dissertation before returning to Duke for the 2005-2006 academic year.

Turkyilmaz’s dissertation advisor, Orin Starn, who is the director of graduate studies for Duke’s cultural anthropology program, traveled to Yerevan to attend the trial, said Duke spokesman David Jarmul.

‘“We are so happy to celebrate his release,’” said his friend, Ozlem Dalkiran, a human rights activist who was reached in Istanbul on Aug. 16. ‘“His morale was fine. They were treating him okay, but of course he didn’t have access to a telephone, which was not a regular thing for prison. [After the sentencing] he himself called. He was out there drinking coffee.’”

Turkyilmaz received a two-year suspended sentence said Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill who is a member of Turkyilmaz’s dissertation committee.

Dalkiran added that the judge upheld the confiscation of the books but ordered that Turkyilmaz’s CDs be returned. He is required to stay in the country until Aug. 31.

Turkyilmaz was charged with violating an Armenian law that lumps cultural artifacts together with radioactive material, narcotic drugs, weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems as items whose export is prohibited or regulated, according to his website. His supporters say Turkyilmaz did not realize he was required to declare books more than 50 years old at customs.

The fact that Turkyilmaz is a Turkish citizen and a member of the Kurdish ethnic minority has made his supporters question whether he was singled out by the Armenian authorities because of his nationality. Relations between Turkey and Armenia have remained strained since World War I, when the Turkish government is reported to have killed more than a million Armenians in a genocide that was a forerunner to Nazi Germany’s Jewish holocaust. Among Turks, there are many who question whether the genocide actually occurred. Turkyilmaz’s supporters say they are mystified by his detention because his scholarship takes a critical view of the official version of Turkish history.

‘“The irony is that the Armenians arrested one of the Turkish citizens that is most sympathetic to their cause,’” Kurzman said. ‘“A number of Turkish scholars over the last several years have started to question the official narrative of late Ottoman and Turkish history. Yektan is among those scholars. Yektan, by learning Armenian, has become central to those efforts. Turkish scholars generally ignored the experiences of other groups by downplaying the massive death of Armenians during the period of 1915 to 1920. On the Armenian side, there’s been a hostility towards Turkish and Kurdish people.’”

Dalkiran said many of Turkyilmaz’s supporters suspect that the scholar’s detention was politically motivated.

‘“We learnt that during the first days of his custody he was being interrogated about his research, political affiliations and relations,’” she wrote in an e-mail message. She cited a report by Radio Free Europe, which has been covering the story from Yerevan, as the main source of information that Turkyilmaz’s treatment might have been motivated by something more than enforcement of customs law.

The article reported that the Armenian National Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, had considered charging Turkyilmaz with espionage and held the scholar in its most tightly guarded jail. Ozlem added that books Turkyilmaz left with friends in Armenia were also seized by the police, also indicating that the authorities’ interest in him went beyond customs enforcement.

Many Armenians in the United States rallied to Turkyilmaz’s side during his imprisonment.

‘“I’m a little puzzled by the fact that he was detained,’” said Marc Mamigonian, director of programs and publications at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research in Belmont, Mass. ‘“I can’t really fathom why he wasn’t released in a week. If he’s being singled out because he’s a Turkish national, then I don’t understand because I don’t believe he’s some sort of genocide apologist or denyer.’”

As a matter of establishing his importance as a scholar, Turkyilmaz’s supporters say he was the first Turkish citizen given access to the Armenian National Archives and that he has the largest collection of Armenian-language books in Turkey, a resource that has been used by many international scholars.

His most prominent supporter in the Armenian community is perhaps Richard Hovannisian, who chairs the modern Armenian history department at the University of California-Los Angeles, and wrote a letter to the chief judicial prosecutor offering to post bail for the young scholar.

‘“Because I’ve met Yektan, I regard him as a bright graduate student with a promising career,’” he said. ‘“He’s a person who tries to deal with controversial issues in an objective manner. I believe he was in good faith conducting research in Armenia. If he broke the law technically I don’t think he realized the seriousness of the consequences.’”

Hovannissian’s son Raffi was the Republic of Armenia’s first foreign minister after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. As the president of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan, he is regarded as a political opposition figure to the current government.

The case also caught the attention of former US presidential candidate Bob Dole, who said he was asked to intervene because of his reputation as a longtime supporter of Armenia and because his wife, North Carolina Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole, is a an alumna and former trustee of Duke University.

‘“Elizabeth and I remain prominent supporters of your country, but the issues raised by Yektan’s detention go beyond our ties to Armenia and past support by raising questions about Armenia’s democratic progress and commitment to the rule of law,’” he wrote in a letter to President Robert Kocharian on Aug. 2. ‘“Your treatment of Yektan makes Armenia look bad ‘— with good reason. Armenia has many friends in the United States, but we cannot and will not defend the indefensible.’”

Kurzman said he believes Turkyilmaz’s ordeal has helped create more understanding between academics in Armenia, Turkey and in those countries’ national communities abroad.

‘“Yektan has yet to write his dissertation, but he’s already changing relations between these countries,’” he said. ‘“He is the only scholar of his generation, possibly alive, that can work in all three languages of eastern Anatolia: Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish. There’s an open letter signed by more than two hundred scholars from Turkey and Armenia. By cosigning an open letter appealing for Yektan’s release, it’s a sign that all parties respect Yektan’s work and his potential. Perhaps there is a thaw in relations between these academic communities.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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