Sinan Aygül, the president of the Bitlis Journalists Association, was brutally assaulted in Tatvan, a district in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeastern province of Bitlis, by security guards affiliated with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) mayor of Tatvan.
The attack on Aygül is believed to be in response to his extensive coverage of corruption scandals and irregularities in the city.
In 2019, the Interior Ministry’s suspension of nine municipal council members from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Tatvan raised concerns about the erosion of local democratic processes and the ability to hold mayoral affairs accountable. Despite the HDP having a majority of council members in Tatvan, it was the AKP that emerged victorious in the 2019 elections, prompting concerns about the balance of power and democratic representation at the local level following the suspension.
Aygül’s critical reporting had focused on exposing various instances of corruption, favouritism, and nepotism within AKP-led local governments. One of the issues he highlighted was the practice of granting positions within the Tatvan municipality through nepotism. Many of the contracted personnel appointed by the municipality had close ties to political figures. Notably, one of the appointees was the brother of AKP Tatvan District Chairman Cemil Sayılgan, another was the son-in-law of Tatvan Mayor Mehmet Emin Geylani, and the third was the brother of AKP Bitlis Member of Parliament Cemal Taşar. Aygül’s reporting shed light on the close proximity between these appointments and political affiliations.
In another news report, Aygül exposed the suspicious sale of a valuable property by the Tatvan municipality. On 9 June, he brought attention to the fact that Mayor Geylani had put the municipality’s last and most valuable property in the city centre up for sale. Aygül questioned the hasty sale of the property and whether it was an attempt to cover the costs of a contract awarded to a single company at a higher price.
Aygül’s investigative reports went beyond local government corruption and also exposed irregularities within state institutions. In one instance, he shared footage suggesting that meat intended for distribution to the poor by the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) was being used at a hotel owned by Battal Taşar, the president of the Tatvan branch of Kızılay, and his brother Cemal Taşar, an AKP MP for Bitlis. The release of the footage led to a legal case against Aygül, and on 12 January 2023, he was charged with “violating workplace immunity.” The indictment sought a prison sentence of six months to one year for Aygül.
This is not the first time Aygül has faced repercussions for his investigative reporting. In 2014, he faced a lawsuit and subsequent conviction for an op-ed in which he referred to Vahit Kiler, the former AKP MP for Bitlis, as a “ravenous politician.” The case revolved around allegations of corruption in the 450 million US dollars worth ‘Geothermal Energy Project’ in Bitlis. Aygül’s conviction resulted in a fine of 1,500 Turkish Lira, with a suspended ruling. However, Aygül refused to pay the fine, stating, “Receiving a conviction in this case is a bitter situation for press freedom and freedom of expression, and I cannot accept it.”
Meral Danış Beştaş, the Green Left Party Erzurum deputy and group deputy chairwoman, strongly condemned the attack against Aygül. She expressed her outrage at the situation, as she described the events that transpired. According to Beştaş, as Aygül was leaving a dentist appointment, he was suddenly and violently assaulted from behind by Engin Kaplan and Yücel Baysali, bodyguards of Geylani. Beştaş highlighted that one of the assailants, Engin Kaplan, is the mayor’s nephew and a professional boxer, while Yücel Baysali, the other attacker, is a policeman who was carrying a gun. She also ridiculed the mayor’s claims to have been completely unaware of the attack, stating, “Somehow!”
Beştaş held the AKP government responsible for the attack and strongly criticised its practices. She pointed out that the incident was a result of the government’s endorsement of fascism, the propagation of hatred, and the persecution entrenched within society. Beştaş expressed her disappointment at the lack of a statement from the Interior Minister, suggesting that the absence of such a response exemplifies the increasing censorship of the press. Furthermore, she highlighted the issue of impunity for state officials and security officers. Beştaş emphasised that if the police and the mayor are shielded from consequences in this incident, it unequivocally exposes the government’s direct responsibility.