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Duke grad student detained in Armenia

BY PAUL BONNER : The Herald-Sun

pbonner@heraldsun.com

Jul 11, 2005 : 10:57 pm ET

DURHAM — Duke University doctoral student Yektan Turkyilmaz is something of a rarity in the chronically uneasy relationship between Turkey and neighboring Armenia: a Turkish historian accepted by Armenians as impartial.

Which makes it seem all the more odd to his Duke associates, friends and family that after allowing him to conduct research at Armenia’s national archives — reportedly the first Turk ever to do so — Armenian authorities have detained him for more than three weeks.

Despite pleas from Duke administrators and others, Turkyilmaz remains in a legal limbo. Although he has not been charged, he ran afoul of an Armenian law that makes it a crime to take any book more than 50 years old out of the country without permission.

While researching in Armenia, Turkyilmaz bought several second-hand books from street vendors, said his adviser, Duke professor Orin Starn.

Turkyilmaz had finished a six-week stint at the Armenian archives in the capital city of Yerevan, the last leg of travels that also have taken him to Paris and Ankara, Turkey, for his dissertation on Turkey and the surrounding region in the early 20th century. He was pulled off a departing plane at Yerevan’s airport on June 17 and held by Armenia’s National Security Service.

He has not been allowed to communicate with his family in Turkey or with Duke associates, although he now has a lawyer, Starn said. The lawyer has relayed word that Turkyilmaz is in good health and says he has not been mistreated, said Starn, who has communicated with Turkyilmaz’s sister in Istanbul.

“We’re deeply concerned about the situation,” Starn said.

Most of the books were from the 20th century, although one was published in the 17th century, Starn said. If Turkyilmaz had declared the books at the airport, he would have been allowed to keep them, Starn said.

“None of these books, according to the lawyer, are rare books, ancient manuscripts, national treasures or anything like that,” Starn said. “I’m certain that Yektan didn’t know of the existence of that law. Who would?”

Turk-Armenian relations still smolder over what Armenians say was genocide against them by Turkey in the early 20th century. Turkey disputes the extent of civilian deaths and denies any policy of genocide.

Turkyilmaz, who belongs to the Kurdish ethnic group, speaks Armenian well, and is acknowledged by the head of Armenia’s national archives as “an impartial writer,” the AZG Armenian Daily newspaper reported.

“That’s what’s paradoxical about this situation,” Starn said.

Armenian claims of genocide are “something of a taboo subject” in Turkey, he said. “And Yektan is one of the relatively few scholars who have spoken out and called for the need for more dialogue and understanding about what happened back then,” Starn said.

The 33-year-old student in Duke’s department of cultural anthropology is a “brilliant” and well-liked researcher, for whom Turkish, Armenian and English are just three of the seven languages he speaks, Starn said. He is scheduled to return this month to Duke, where he is a John Hope Franklin fellow for the coming academic year.

Top Duke administrative officials have urged his release, and U.S. Rep. David Price’s office has asked the U.S. State Department and Armenian Embassy to investigate.

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