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Duke Student Released From Armenian Prison

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  • Duke Student Released From Armenian Prison


    NBC, NC
    Oct 17 2005

    POSTED: 5:49 am EDT October 17, 2005

    DURHAM, N.C. -- A Duke University scholar is back at work on his
    doctoral dissertation after spending two months in an Armenian prison
    this summer on what he believes was a trumped-up charge.

    Yektan Turkyilmaz was detained when he tried to leave that country
    with antique books, a violation of Armenian law.

    But the Turkish citizen thinks it was his research that really got
    him into trouble. The two countries have a historically hostile
    relationship, and Turkyilmaz's dissertation addresses it.

    "I never thought that they would, like, you know, detain me. I thought
    it was something silly," he said.

    Turkyilmaz, 33, has been to Armenia five times, the first in 2002. He
    returned in April to work for two months. The avid book collector
    also bought more than 100 used books and pamphlets in Yerevan, the
    Armenian capital, something he has done in the past with no problem.

    This time, however, it caused a big one.

    As Turkyilmaz waited to pass through an airport security checkpoint
    on June 17, a strange man spoke to him in broken English. Turkyilmaz
    had been speaking Armenian.

    "I realized that something was up," he recalled.

    His passport was stamped, but then he was surrounded by more than
    half a dozen agents from the National Security Service who told
    Turkyilmaz to empty his pockets and confiscated his luggage. They
    disregarded his explanation that he was a scholar and meticulously
    began logging the titles of the 88 books he had in his bags --
    sometimes with Turkyilmaz's help in translating those that were
    written in old Armenian.

    But the agents also showed little care for the books, some of which
    dated to the 17th century. They piled them on the floor or dumped them
    in plastic bags. And their questions quickly switched to Turkyilmaz
    himself -- his political views, his Kurdish ethnicity, who he knew
    in Armenia and the subject of his research.

    That, he believes, was the real issue. Turkyilmaz is studying how
    modern Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish nationalism developed after the
    mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during World War I. He was the
    first Turkish scholar allowed in the Armenian national archives to
    conduct research.

    "His trip was unprecedented for a Turkish citizen and also a huge
    feather in his cap for his academic career," said Charles Kurzman,
    an associate professor of sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill and one of
    Turkyilmaz's advisers. "That's high-risk, high-gain research."

    U.S. politicians and diplomats were joined by a host of academics
    who campaigned for his release from Armenia, while Turkyilmaz spent
    his days in a small prison cell in Yerevan.

    He was questioned almost daily during the first month by agents who
    examined his computer files and CDs. They also accused him of being
    a spy -- a charge that could bring a 15-year prison term.

    But the only charge filed against him, three days after his arrest,
    involved the books. Breaking the obscure law -- unfamiliar even to
    the booksellers -- could have gotten Turkyilmaz as much as eight
    years in prison.

    "The whole idea that you could be sentenced to years in prison for
    taking used books out of the country was preposterous," said Orin
    Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke and primary
    adviser to Turkyilmaz.

    On Aug. 16, a judge convicted Turkyilmaz but gave him a two-year
    suspended sentence.

    Turkyilmaz worries now that the conviction could hamper his travel
    in southwestern Asia -- and, consequently, his research -- or create
    problems with U.S. authorities when his visa expires in a few months.

    But he said he's not bitter, and the experience has only cemented
    his desire to pursue an academic career in the United States.

    "I'm so glad to be back," he said. "I feel so safe here, so secure. I
    just want to go back to my work. That's the only thing I want to do
    with my life."