by David Graham
Yektan Türkyilmaz, a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Cultural Anthropology, spoke to a crowd of about 70 Thursday at the von der Heyden Pavilion. He recounted the tale of his arrest and incarceration in Armenia this summer.
Türkyilmaz was arrested June 17 for exporting books more than 50 years old from Armenia shortly before he was scheduled to leave.
His speech focused on his situation in relation to the political conflict between Armenia and Turkey that centers around the so-called genocide of 1 million Armenians in 1915.
Originally, he said, agents of the National Security Service—commonly known as the KGB—tried to pin him with charges of spying for Turkey.
“The concept of ‘scholar’ is pointless to them. According to them, all scholars are spies,” Türkyilmaz said. “I got the treatment I did because of the image of Turk due to the genocide.”
Researching the involvement of Armenians, Kurds and Turks in the transformation of an region in eastern Turkey, he was the first Turkish scholar ever allowed to research in the National Archives of Armenia. The material he collected came under intense scrutiny during his detention.
“I got good advice from the KGB on my dissertation,” he joked. “They told me my topic was too broad.”
He added that a large effort to free him—including appeals from President Richard Brodhead and former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, a long-time advocate for Armenia—only created suspicion that he was a U.S. spy.
After authorities found 90 old books in his luggage, he became the first person ever charged under the obscure provision of Armenian law. The code of law prohibits the export of cultural value.
“It was only when they could find no basis [for espionage charges] that the issue of my illegally purchased books came into question,” he said, noting that he collects books and had not been aware of the law.
In jail, Türkyilmaz said he could hear the screams of prisoners being tortured on the floor above him and said he was forced to sign a contract with a lawyer he believes was on the NSS payroll.
Türkyilmaz was released Aug. 15 after receiving a two-year suspended sentence. Before his speech Thursday, he said he was proud that “open-minded scholars [in Turkey and Armenia] have created a new dialogue” that replaces the hostility that existed before his case.
“It’s a pretty incredible story,” said senior Marina Kukso. “It shows research and the academy can be more relevant and politicized.”
His case became a national issue, receiving attention from the Armenian media.
“Duke University must be the most famous university in all of Armenia,” he said.
As an ethnic Kurd, a Turkish national and an Armenian speaker, Türkyilmaz said his identity exacerbated his problems.
“I got strong support from Armenian politicians,” he said, but he also noted the support was fruitless because the NSS answers only to the president and is independent of all other authority. He also added that pro-Soviet sentiments were a problem in the country.
Türkyilmaz attributed some of the complications in his case to his cross-cultural background and academic perspective.
“I was like a U.R.O.—unidentified researching object—for them,” he said. “They couldn’t understand who I was. I think they were really curious.”
However, he said his controversial views—in tandem with the strained Armenian-Turkish relations—made it politically difficult for Turkish officials to publicly support him.
Although he does not need to do anymore research in Armenia for his dissertation, he would like to return to the country, he said Oct. 18.
“Why not? For me, there is no difference between Armenia and Turkey,” he said. “They are both my country—I love the people. I love the country.”
Thursday’s speech was the keynote address for “Working Rights: Labor and Human Rights in the Transnational South,” a two-day conference sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Initiative that will continue through Friday.