Far Away Trial

Duke grad student from Turkey faces charges in Armenia; human rights groups see censorship at play.
August 11, 2005

Academics and human rights advocates are warily monitoring a trial unfolding in an Armenian courtroom, in which a Duke University doctoral student from Turkey faces up to eight years in prison for allegedly taking used books out of the country illegally.

Scholarly groups, which have waged a campaign to defend him, fear the smuggling charges are a subtext for the Armenian government to crack down on a researcher who is studying a politically sensitive period in the country's tangled history with Turkey.

Yektan Turkyilmaz, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology at Duke, in May became the first Turkish citizen to request and receive access to the Armenian National Archives, where he sought information for his dissertation, "Imagining 'Turkey,' Creating a Nation: The Politics of Geography and State Formation in Eastern Anatolia, 1908-1938."

Turkyilmaz is said to be one of a handful of Turkish scholars who have critically assessed the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman in 1915 and 1916, which Armenians and most scholars have long characterized as genocide, and the means by which Turkey took control of the eastern region of the country known as Anatolia.

On June 17, according to the Social Science Research Council (which supports his work with a field grant) and the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, authorities at Yerevan Airport in Armenia pulled Turkilman off an airplane as he prepared to leave the country. They seized in the neighborhood of 100 books that he had bought at secondhand stores and compact disks that contained the fruits of his research in the Armenian archives. 

He was held without bail for nearly a month before being charged, on July 21, with violating an article in the Armenian Constitution that bars transportation out of the country of drugs, nuclear weapons and certain "raw materials or cultural values" without prior permission. According to the scholarly groups' reports, Armenian customs regulations require travelers to declare books that are at least 50 years old, as seven of Turkyilmaz's books reportedly were.

Turkyilmaz's supporters say that if he violated the customs policy, he did so unknowingly, and that he is being treated far more harshly than the charges warrant. They say that the first few days he was held in custody were dominated by interrogation about his research and his political convictions, and that the Armenian authorities pored over his archival material, which arguably had nothing to do with the alleged book smuggling. 

The arrest, the AAAS said in its report on the case, "sends a negative signal that Armenia does not encourage independent scholarly research into its history."

More than 200 academics from around the world signed a letter to Armenia's president urging that Turkmilyaz be released and his archival materials returned. Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke, where Turkmilyaz is a John Hope Franklin Institute fellow, sent a similar letter, in which he called Turkmilyaz a "scholar of extraordinary promise." "His exceptional command of many languages is, I am told, unique among scholars of this period and gives him an equally unique opportunity, therefore, to help illuminate this critical historical period," Brodhead wrote.

He added: "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. You also have the ability to release Mr. Turkyilmaz. With respect, I urge you to do so."

International PEN, the writers' group, issued an alert on Turkyilmaz's behalf, and the former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole weighed in with a letter.

Those pleas did not stop the trial, which began Tuesday but was promptly delayed, according to a report by Radio Free Europe. The agency reported that Turkyilmaz's new lawyer said he needed more time to familiarize himself with the case, and that a delay was granted until tomorrow.

Ayse Gul Altinay, an assistant professor at Istanbul's Sabanci University and an organizer of the campaign for Turkyilmaz, said in an e-mail message Wednesday that "we are hoping that the trial process will not last long and that Yektan will be freed soon. It is also very important that they return his research material, together with his personalthings, when he is released."


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