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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turk Held for 2 Months in Armenia

The News and ObserverYektan Turkyilmaz
DURHAM, North Carolina -- A Turkish citizen is back at work on his doctoral dissertation in the United States 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 Duke University scholar 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 told The News & Observer of Raleigh.

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 began logging the titles of the 88 books in his bags. 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, whom 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.

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. 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. "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."