Free Yektan

Court appearance, Yerevan, Armenia, August 12, 2005. Photo by Photolur.

Yektan Turkyilmaz was given a suspended sentence of two years in prison today and released from custody.
Apparently he must remain in Armenia for approximately two weeks, but will then be free to continue his graduate studies.

Yektan Turkyilmaz left Armenia on September 2, 2005, and returned to his studies at Duke University.

Yektan Turkyilmaz is an anthropologist from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina (USA), who has been detained in Armenia since June 17, 2005. An international campaign is trying to encourage President Robert Kocharian of Armenia to release him. If you would like to help, please read the materials below and contact:

President Robert Kocharian
Republic of Armenia
Erevan, Armenia
E-mail: president@president.am
Phone: +374 (2) 520-656
Fax +374 (10) 521-581

Contents of this Website
Updated September 6, 2005

This page:
Open letters:
Selected press coverage (English):
Selected press coverage (Turkish)

Selected press coverage (Armenian)

This site is maintained by Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA) and a member of Yektan Turkyilmaz's dissertation committee. For further information, please contact the Committee for Solidarity with Yektan Turkyilmaz: Ayse Gul Altinay <altinay@sabanciuniv.edu> or Ozlem Dalkiran <ozlemdalkiran@superonline.com>.

Who Is Yektan Turkyilmaz: A Brief Biography

Yektan Turkyilmaz, 33, is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, North Carolina.  His dissertation, which has won a number of prestigious awards, is titled, "Imagining 'Turkey', Creating a Nation: The Politics of Geography and State formation in Eastern Anatolia, 1908-1938."

Turkyilmaz is one of the few courageous scholars to undertake critical research on the violence of the early 20th century in the context of Anatolia. At the intersection of anthropology, geography and history and grounded in multi-sited, multi-lingual archival and ethnographic research, Turkyilmaz's dissertation is expected to be a major contribution to scholarship on the region.

In his dissertation, Turkyilmaz addresses the question 'How did Eastern Anatolia become "Turkish" over the last century?' He questions the assumption that Turkey simply inherited the Ottoman Empire and instead studies Turkey as a contingent outcome of intricate developments between 1908 and 1938, a period when the political, cultural and demographic map of the region was continuously and radically undone and redone vis-à-vis competing Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian nationalist projects.

Turkyilmaz is a speaker of Turkish, Kurdish, English, and Armenian, and has reading knowledge of Ottoman Turkish and French. He has carried out research in various repositories in Ankara, Istanbul, Vienna, and Yerevan where he undertook four trips and spent a total of 6.5 months. In Yerevan, he conducted research at the Azkayin Krataran, where he has gone through the catalogues of the library's general, cartographic and rare collections. At the Akademiyayi Krataran he had access to resources in the periodicals and special and rare collections sections. In his last visit he was given permission to have access as the first Turkish scholar to the Armenian National Archives.

Turkyilmaz is the recipient of several prestigious awards including the John Hope Franklin Institute Fellowship for 2005-2006; the International Dissertation Field Research Program Award from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for 2003-2004; the Mellon Dissertation Fieldwork Award from the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR) for 2003-2004; the Dissertation Fieldwork Award from the American Research Institute of Turkey (ARIT) for 2003-2004; as well as a Graduate Fellowship from Duke University for 2000-2005.

Turkyilmaz's previous degrees include a Master of Arts in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University, North Carolina, a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from Boğaziçi University, Istanbul; he also studied in the Masters Program at the Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul.

Not only has Turkyilmaz dedicated his academic research towards understanding and preserving the multi-cultural heritage of Eastern Anatolia, but he has also dedicated his personal efforts towards this cause.  Turkyilmaz has been actively trying to preserve Armenian heritage in Istanbul, Yerevan, and everywhere else he has been. He maintains one of the best collections of Armenian books in Turkey, a sign of the importance he gives to Armenian cultural heritage. Several researchers have already benefited from this collection for their own research and Yektan has literally 'saved' many old books from being discarded and forgotten.

Yektan Turkyilmaz is a very gifted scholar with wide range of interests from history to the linguistics of the peoples and regions he studies.  He has exerted great intellectual efforts as well as undertaking great personal risk in engaging crucial academic debates long stifled as politically taboo.  

Prominent Academics on Yektan Turkyilmaz 

"Mr. Turkyilmaz is a deeply honest and morally courageous person. He would never knowingly break in any law. To the contrary, he is known among his friends and colleagues for his great generosity, sincerity, and concern for the welfare of others. He has many friends in Armenia and among Armenian Americans in the United States, all of whom speak of him in warmest terms. I myself consider it an honor to know him." Orin Starn, Sally Dalton Robinson Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University

"Mr. Turkyilmaz is one of the few scholars in the world who can work with historical material in the Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish languages. His research will help to write a new page in the history of the region, a new page that will recognize the history, the struggles, and the suffering of all of the peoples of eastern Anatolia."  Charles Kurzman, Associate Professor of Sociology, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"A brilliant researcher…the best qualified researcher anywhere to conduct this research. I am certain that his future writings will play a very important and positive role in the international scholarly community in the years to come." Katherine Ewing, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Religion, Duke University  

"I can attest that Turkyilmaz is a superb and committed young scholar. Fluent in six languages, he worked particularly hard to develop a program of multi-sited research that would be rigorous, objective, and sensitive to historical and political issues." Deborah A. Thomas, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University

"I find Mr. Turkyilmaz to be one of the most ethical, honest, hardworking, conscientious, and outstanding students I have ever worked with. He is a scholar of the first-order with an intellectual thirst and acuity that are superior.” Charlie Piot, Creed C. Black Associate Professor, Duke University

"Turkyilmaz is a person of the highest integrity, who is a thoroughly law-abiding and decent member of the community. I do not believe he would ever knowingly violate the law." Donald L. Horowitz, James B. Duke Professor of Law and Political Science, Duke University

"It is clear that Mr. Turkyilmaz is a scholar who is committed to the very highest standards of professional objectivity and conduct and to the search for truth untainted by any political bias and interests." Srinivas Aravamudan, Director, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University

"I have been repeatedly impressed with the integrity, honesty, and sense of deep ethical commitment Mr. Turkyilmaz exhibits in every facet of his intellectual being as a scholar. He is deeply committed to the seeking the truth of historical situations without the taint of political or personal bias." Anne Allison, Chair and Professor, Department of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University

Update on Yektan Turkyilmaz

Turkish Citizen Imprisoned in Armenia since June 17, 2005

(Updated as of July 27, 2005)

Yektan Turkyilmaz, a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, was pulled out of the plane and detained at the Yerevan Airport on June 17. Turkyilmaz was leaving Yerevan after his fourth research trip to Armenia and was scheduled to do more research in Istanbul and Paris before going back to Duke University as a fellow of the John Hope Franklin Institute for 2005-2006.

In May and June 2005, Yektan Turkyilmaz did research in the Armenian National Archives and was the first Turkish citizen to have had access to these archives. As he was boarding his plane, he carried with him his research material digitally stored in CDs and about 100 books he had bought in second hand bookstores and the open air market Vernissage in Yerevan. Turkyilmaz had collected these books, which range from the 17th to the 20th century, as a researcher and bibliophile who maintains one of the best collections of Armenian books in Turkey. Besides his own research, his collection has already benefited other researchers and he has literally 'saved' many old books from being discarded and forgotten. What Turkyilmaz did not know was that according to Armenian customs regulations he had to 'declare' books older than 50 years at customs.

Since June 17, Yektan Turkyilmaz has been held in the National Security Service (still referred to as the KGB) headquarters in Yerevan under high security conditions. Since his arrest six weeks ago, he has had no access to the outside world apart from his meetings with his lawyer and a brief meeting last week with a colleague and friend (which took place in an interrogation room at the KGB headquarters in the presence of a security agent, and neither party was allowed to take notes). He cannot use the phone, write letters, or receive letters.

The official request of Yektan Turkyilmaz's lawyer to have Yektan released on bail until his trial date was rejected on July 19, despite the fact that Turkyilmaz had official documents signed by a member of the Armenian parliament and Richard Hovanissian (Professor of History at UCLA), personally vouching that Yektan would remain in the country during this time period.

 On July 21, the prosecutor's indictment was submitted to the court. The court will decide on a trial date in the next two weeks. [Update, August 9, 2005: The trial began on August 9, 2005.] Yektan Turkyilmaz is being charged with Article 215, paragraph 2 of the Armenian Criminal Code, which says:

 "Contraband of narcotic drugs, neurological, strong, poisonous, poisoning, radioactive or explosive materials, weapons, explosive devices, ammunition, fire-arms, except smoothbore long barrel hunting guns, nuclear, chemical, biological or other mass destruction weapons, or dual-use materials, devices, or technologies which can also be used for the creation or use of mass destruction weapons or missile delivery systems thereof, strategic raw materials or cultural values for the transportation of which special rules are established, is punished with imprisonment for the term of 4 to 8 years, with or without property confiscation." [Emphasis added]  (http://www.legislationline.org/view.php?document=62156&ref=true)

Points of Concern:

  • Yektan Turkyilmaz has unknowingly violated Armenian customs law and is being treated in the same category as a nuclear weapons smuggler. Instead of asking Turkyilmaz to pay a fine, with or without the confiscation of the books, the Armenian authorities have kept Turkyilmaz in the KGB headquarters for six weeks now, under high security conditions with almost no access to the outside world, apart from his lawyer.
  • Turkyilmaz had bought all his books legally from second-hand bookstores in Armenia (as the testimonies of the booksellers confirm) and did not suspect that he would need permission to take these books out of Armenia (neither did his Armenian friends, as quoted in the indictment). According to the indictment, some of the booksellers claim that they had directly or indirectly told Turkyilmaz about this necessity, but Turkyilmaz contests these testimonies. Why would he not obtain the necessary permissions if he had known about this law? Various other Armenian scholars and intellectuals we have talked to said that they themselves were unaware of it.
  • Lawyers suggest that this is the first time this particular article in the Armenian Criminal Code has ever been applied to a person carrying books.
  • The KGB investigator himself has challenged certain aspects of this law. He has filed a report saying that the law is problematic in that it gives the sole responsibility to the 'buyer' of the books. He suggests that in the future the sellers should ask the buyers to sign special papers for books that qualify under this law. These papers should inform the buyer of their legal responsibility. For instance, in the case of old carpets, sellers get these permissions themselves or personally assist the buyers in getting the necessary permissions.
  • The current justification for Turkyilmaz's arrest (customs violation of books) cannot account for the confiscation of not only the CDs consisting of his research material in the archives, but also the second copies of these CDs, which he had left with his Armenian friends. Why have these CDs, which have nothing to do with the charges, been confiscated, along with the second copies? Turkyilmaz himself suggested that the first week to ten days of his interrogation was focused on his research, his political convictions, and his connections, with every single page in his archival material being examined by the KGB investigators.
  • The political implications of this arrest cause grave concern among Turkish, Armenian, and American scholars. Yektan Turkyilmaz is one of a very few Turkish scholars who have critically tackled the events of 1915 and other instances of political violence in the first part of this century. Being the only researcher who can understand Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian at the same time (besides English and French), his research promises to add new dimensions to the study of a very troubled historical period in Anatolia and the South Caucasus. The fact that he was arrested soon after he gained access as the first Turkish scholar to the Armenian National Archives adds to these concerns. The fragile space of dialogue recently being opened up between Turkish and Armenian scholars is put to the risk of being greatly damaged by Turkyilmaz's prolonged detention.
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