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Convicted, But Free, in Armenia

August 17, 2005

A Duke University doctoral student was freed Tuesday, after an Armenian court found him guilty of illegally trying to take books out of the country but suspended his two-year prison sentence. 

Yektan Turkyilmaz had been held since June 17, when authorities at Yerevan Airport in Armenia yanked him off an airplane as he prepared to leave the country. They seized about 100 books that he had bought at secondhand stores and compact disks that contained notes from research he had done in the Armenian National Archives, for his dissertation on the Ottoman empire's reign of terror in Armenia in the early 20th century. Turkyilmaz, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology at Duke, had been the first Turkish citizen to request and receive access to the archives.

In July, Armenian authorities charged him with violating an article in the Armenian Constitution that bars transportation out of the country of certain “raw materials or cultural values” without prior permission. Armenians customs regulations require travelers to declare books that are at least 50 years old, as 88 of Turkyilmaz’s books reportedly were. 

Turkyilmaz and his supporters said that if he violated the customs policy, he did so unknowingly, and that he was being treated far more harshly than the charges warranted.

Scholarly groups from around the world rallied to his defense, suggesting that the smuggling charges were a pretext for a crackdown on a researcher studying a politically sensitive period in the country’s tangled history with Turkey -- and from a sympathetic viewpoint, no less. Duke's president and the former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole joined scholarly groups in writing letters on his behalf.

In a trial that started last week and ended Tuesday, prosecutors argued that they had clearly proven that Turkyilmaz had violated the law, but cited "mitigating circumstances," including his youthfulness and his "at least partly truthful" testimony in accepting a largely symbolic suspended sentence, according to the Web site Armenialiberty.org, part of Radio Free Europe. The news service said that the judge had ordered the confiscation of the 88 books, and that Turkyilmaz will remain in Armenia for two weeks until the verdict becomes official.

Officials at Duke confirmed late Tuesday that Turkyilmaz had been released, but said they had little additional information.

Orin Starn, a Duke professor of cultural anthropology who, as Turkyilmaz's adviser, attended the trial, told Armenialiberty.org that “Duke University is very pleased that Yektan has been given his freedom. The books that Yektan collected were a reflection of his interest in Armenia. I know that Yektan will do wonderful work that will help us to understand the history of this region and the facts of the Armenian genocide.”

 

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