Yektan Turkyilmaz, a Turkish scholar who was arrested in Armenia two months ago, walked free from a court in Yerevan on Tuesday after being given a two-year suspended prison sentence for attempting to illegally take old Armenian books out of the country.
The court in the city’s Malatia-Sebastia district convicted Turkyilmaz of two counts of smuggling but chose not to imprison him at the last-minute request of state prosecutors that cited his partial acknowledgement of his guilt and cooperation with investigators. The doctoral student of the U.S. Duke University will have to stay in Armenia until the verdict’s formal entry into force on August 31. He will then be free to leave the country and visit it again.
“I’m now free, right?” an incredulous Turkyilmaz asked journalists that surrounded him immediately after the announcement of the ruling. “I am happy to be free,” he said after hearing a positive answer. “I now want to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation. I was, I am and I will remain a friend of the Armenians.”
The presiding judge, Karen Farkhoyan, also upheld the confiscation of 88 secondhand Armenian books which Turkyilmaz bought in Yerevan and wanted to take with him to Istanbul. All of those books were published more than 50 years ago, with four of them dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Under an Armenian law that took effect last January, they can not be taken abroad without a written permission of the Ministry of Culture.
Turkyilmaz had no such permission when customs and security officers at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport found and confiscated those books on June 17. Both during his arrest and throughout his short trial he insisted that he was unaware of the requirement. Nonetheless, he was charged under an article of Armenia’s Criminal Code that envisages between four and eight years’ imprisonment for the contraband of “cultural-historical values,” narcotics and weapons.
“I believe that the accusations leveled against the defendant are absolutely substantiated,” the trial prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan, said in his concluding remarks.
Piloyan dismissed the defendant’s arguments that the books, most of them relating to the activities of Armenian nationalist parties in the Ottoman Empire, were needed for his doctoral studies at the prestigious U.S. university. “I don’t want to discuss his doctoral dissertation or events that took place in Anatolia from 1908-38,” he said. “We are investigating a criminal case regarding smuggling.”
The prosecutor then cited “mitigating circumstances” such as the defendant’s young age and his “at least partly truthful court testimony” to invoke another clause in the Criminal Code that envisages largely symbolic prison sentences.
“I regret what happened and accept that as a result of my inconsistency and indifference, I did not know legal requirements existing in the Republic of Armenia and failed to obtain permission for the books in a manner defined by the law,” Turkyilmaz send in his final court speech which he delivered in Armenian.
“As I said earlier, I never sought to violate the laws of the Republic of Armenia or to cause any damage to the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian people,” he added. “I therefore ask the court to be forgiving to myself and apply the softest possible punishment.”
Turkyilmaz’s release was welcomed by Orin Starn, a representative of Duke University who attended the trial. “Duke University is very pleased that Yektan has been given his freedom,” Starn told RFE/RL. “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.”
The Duke University president as well as over 200 U.S., Turkish and Armenian scholars have sent open letters to President Robert Kocharian calling for the release of their colleague. They said the punishment initially sought by Armenian prosecutors is too strict and unjustified. It is not clear if their protests have played a role in the prosecutors’ eventual decision not to seek the imprisonment of the Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin. Officials in Kocharian’s press service could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Individuals accused of smuggling have rarely ended up in prison in Armenia. This fact raised questions about reasons for the severity of the charges brought against Turkyilmaz. The latter’s interrogations by officials from the National Security Service (NSS), which conducted the pre-trial investigation into the case, reportedly focused on his academic work and political beliefs.
The electronic copies of his research material collected at Armenia’s National Archive were also confiscated and closely examined by NSS investigators. The Malatia-Sebastia court ordered them to return the CDs to the scholar.
Turkyilmaz, who has repeatedly visited Armenia since 2003, became last May the first Turkish national who asked for and was granted access to the Armenian state archives. He said on Tuesday that despite his two-month ordeal he wants to conduct more research at the archives and may again visit them as early as this week.
“I have not yet finished my work there and am glad that I will stay in Yerevan for 15 more days,” Turkyilmaz told reporters. “I love this city.”