By Emil Danielyan
A Turkish scholar who spent two months in an Armenian jail on controversial smuggling charges believes that he was arrested because the country’s most powerful security agency suspected him of espionage.
In an interview published on the website of his Duke University in the United States on Thursday, Yektan Turkyilmaz insisted that his attempt to take rare books out of Armenia without a mandatory government permission was not the main reason for his arrest last June. He said the National Security Service (NSS), the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB, used the issue as a “pretext” to keep him in detention without having to prove that he is a Turkish spy.
“I’d gone to Armenia five times and never had a problem,” said the 33-year-old doctoral student of cultural anthropology. “But the people who arrested me seemed to have other motives and kept asking me about my political views. They didn’t seem to understand the idea of what a scholar is or why I’d be doing this research.”
“Initially they thought I was a spy but, of course, there was no evidence to support this,” he added.
Individuals familiar with the case likewise told RFE/RL earlier that the NSS investigators suspected Turkyilmaz of espionage before bringing the smuggling case. Giving weight to those claims is the fact that Turkyilmaz was charged under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that calls for between four and eight years’ imprisonment for smugglers of items ranging from cultural artifacts to weapons of mass destruction.
The NSS press service did not return phone calls and could not be reached for comment on Friday. The secretive agency has not officially commented on the case so far.
Individuals accused of violating customs regulations rarely end up in jail in Armenia. NSS involvement in such investigations has also been extremely rare.
During the two-month pre-trial inquiry NSS officers questioned many of Turkyilmaz’s Armenian friends and acquaintances. Some of them say they were not asked any questions about some 90 old books, including two 17th century publications, which the Duke scholar legally bought in Yerevan. Under an Armenian law that acme into effect in January, they can not be taken abroad without a written permission of the Culture Ministry.
Turkyilmaz, who was arrested at Yerevan airport as he boarded a plane bound for Istanbul on June 17, reiterated that he was unaware of the legal requirement. “I didn’t know about the law,” he said. “No one does. Even the booksellers don’t know about it. This whole thing about the books was just a pretext.”
Turkyilmaz was set free in a Yerevan court on August 16 after being given a two-year suspended prison sentence at the last-minute request of a state prosecutor. His prosecution caused an international uproar, with over 250 American, Turkish and Diaspora Armenian academics and intellectuals signing an open letter to President Kocharian that called for his release. Also writing to Kocharian was Bob Dole, a former pro-Armenian U.S. senator and presidential candidate.
“I’m grateful to everyone who helped me, especially to the Duke community and to the many Armenian intellectuals, journalists and officials who supported me,” said Turkyilmaz.
An ethnic Kurd fluent in Armenian, Turkyilmaz became last May the first Turkish national who sought and was allowed to carry out research in Armenia’s national archives regarding the 1915-1918 extermination of some 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. He is among the few Turkish scholars who openly challenge Ankara’s claims that the mass killings did not amount to genocide.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian welcomed Turkyilmaz’s release on August 30, admitting that his imprisonment would have damaged Yerevan’s international standing and efforts at international recognition of the Armenian genocide. “I wish the trial had not taken place,” he said.
Oskanian spoke to journalists the day before the formal entry into force of the court verdict in the case. Turkyilmaz flew back to the United States on September 2, avoiding any stopovers in Turkey. He apparently feared being detained and questioned by Turkish security officials.
“What’s funny is that now you have some Armenians officials who don’t want me doing research in Armenia, and some Turks who don’t want me to talk about the genocide,” Turkyilmaz said. “I just hope the incident will lead to closer cooperation between Turkish and Armenian scholars in discussing some of these painful historical questions.”