A Turkish court granted bail to two bodyguards who were arrested on charges of attacking local journalist Sinan Aygül (center). Also on September 14, 2023, two courts declined to release journalists Abdurrahman Gök (right) and Mehmet Şah Oruç (left), who have been held in pretrial detention since April. (Photo Credit: Mezopotamya News Agency)

Turkish courts keep 2 reporters in pretrial detention, grant bail to bodyguards charged with attack on a journalist

Istanbul, September 15, 2023—Turkish authorities should not continue imprisoning journalists for their reporting while granting bail to those charged with assaulting them, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On Thursday, September 14, the 2nd Tatvan Court of Penal Peace granted bail to Yücel Baysali and Engin Kaplan, two bodyguards of the mayor of the eastern city of Tatvan who were arrested on charges of attacking local journalist Sinan Aygül in June. 

On the same day, the 5th Diyarbakır Court of Serious Crimes and the 2nd Bitlis Court of Serious Crimes declined to release Abdurrahman Gök and Mehmet Şah Oruç, respectively. Both are reporters for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency who have been held in pretrial detention since April.

Gök and Oruç are both charged with membership in a terrorist organization and propaganda in connection with their reporting. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison for membership in a terrorist organization and up to 7.5 years for propaganda, the journalists’ lawyer, Resul Temur, told CPJ.

“Thursday was a sad day for journalism in Turkey. Imprisoned for their work, journalists Abdurrahman Gök and Mehmet Şah Oruç will lose more months of their lives behind bars while those accused of brutally assaulting journalist Sinan Aygül enjoy their freedom while awaiting trial,” said Özgür Öğret, CPJ’s Turkey representative. “Turkish authorities are punishing journalists for doing their jobs and protecting those who assault them. Authorities must release Gök and Oruç and take action to ensure Aygül’s safety.”

During their Thursday hearing, Baysali and Kaplan claimed that Aygül, chief editor of the privately owned website Bitlis News and chair of the Bitlis Journalists Society, insulted them. The two accused demanded their release, claiming they were wrongfully detained and that it was the journalist who should be on trial, not them.

Their lawyers denied the charges of “intentional injury” despite video evidence of Baysali beating Aygül. The video also showed Kaplan, a police officer, touching his gun to intimidate bystanders who tried to intervene.

In a video posted to X, previously known as Twitter, Aygül said he does not believe he has “security of life” and told CPJ after the hearing that he wouldn’t be surprised if he were arrested as a victim of the attack. The next court hearing is December 14.

Gök and Oruç are charged with terrorism due to alleged ties to the outlawed organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, according to the indictments reviewed by CPJ. The evidence for these claims includes examples of their professional work and statements from witnesses who admitted to ties with the PKK, which Turkey deems a terrorist organization. 

Gök and his lawyers argued in court that the indictment lacked solid evidence and the charges were retaliation for his 2017 award-winning report about police officers who shot and killed a young man. 

Oruç and Temur told the Bitlis court that the case against the journalist was based on his journalistic works and he had no ties to terrorism. Oruç, who was not brought to court and attended the hearing by teleconference, said, “Kurdish journalism is being criminalized.”

Turkey was the world’s fourth-worst jailer of journalists, with 40 behind bars at the time of CPJ’s December 1, 2022, prison census. Of those, more than half were Kurdish journalists.

The courts set Oruç’s next hearing for October 31 and Gök’s next hearing for December 5. CPJ’s emails to the prosecutor’s offices in Diyarbakır, Bitlis, and the Municipality of Tatvan did not receive a reply. 

In 2022, Gök was sentenced to 18 months for propaganda. That appeal has yet to be heard.

[Editors’ Note: Paragraph two was updated to correct the date.]