- The mayor of Istanbul was sentenced to 2 years 7 months in prison
- Imamoglu was accused of insulting public servants in speech
- He is seen as a strong potential candidate in the 2023 elections
- Supporters chanting slogans outside the municipality headquarters
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish court sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to prison on Wednesday and imposed a political ban on the opposition politician seen as a strong potential challenger to President Tayyip Erdogan in next year’s elections.
Imamoglu was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison along with a ban, both of which must be confirmed by an appeals court, for insulting public officials in a speech he gave after winning Istanbul’s municipal elections in 2019.
Riot police were stationed outside the courtroom on the Asian side of the city of 17 million, though Imamoglu continued business as usual and dismissed court proceedings.
At his town hall across the Bosphorus on the European side of Istanbul, he told thousands of supporters that the ruling represented a “deep legal breach” which “proves that there is no justice in Turkey today”.
He said that the voters will respond in the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next June.
The vote could present the biggest political challenge yet for Erdogan, who is seeking to extend his rule into a third decade in the face of a collapsing currency and rampant inflation that has pushed the cost of living for Turks higher than ever.
The six-party opposition alliance has not yet approved their presidential candidate, and Imamoglu has been floated as a major potential contender to run against Erdogan.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of Imamoglu’s opposition Republican People’s Party, said he had cut short a visit to Germany and returned to Turkey in response to what he described as a “serious violation of law and justice”.
Vedant Patil, the US State Department’s senior deputy spokesperson, said the US State Department was “troubled and deeply disappointed” by the ruling. “This unjust ruling contradicts respect for human rights with regard to basic freedoms and the rule of law,” he added.
“a very sad day”
The European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, Nacho Sánchez Amor, expressed his disbelief at the “unimaginable” ruling.
“Justice in #Turkey is in a state of catastrophe, grossly used for political purposes. Very sad day,” he wrote on Twitter.
Imamoglu was prosecuted for a speech he made after the Istanbul elections when he said those who canceled the primary vote – in which he narrowly defeated a candidate from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party – were “fools”. Imamoglu says that this remark was a response to Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu for using the same language against him.
After preliminary results were annulled, he comfortably won the run-off election, ending the 25-year rule of the AKP and its Islamist predecessors in Turkey’s largest city.
The outcome of next year’s elections is seen as the ability of the CHP and other opposition parties to unite around a single candidate to challenge Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party, which has ruled Turkey since 2002.
Erdogan, who also served as Istanbul mayor before rising to control Turkish national politics, was briefly jailed in 1999 for reciting a poem a court ruled incitement to religious hatred.
Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), wrote on Twitter that Imamoglu should be locked up in the same prison as Erdogan so that he can finally pursue his path to the presidency.
A prison sentence or political ban on Imamoglu will have to be upheld in appeals courts, which could lead to an extension of the outcome of the case beyond the election date.
Critics say Turkish courts are subject to Erdogan’s will. The government says the judiciary is independent.
Temusin Koprulu, a professor of criminal law at Atilim University in Ankara, told Reuters after the verdict.
Additional reporting by Ecji Toksabay and Hüseyin Hayatcifer in Ankara, Hamira Pamuk in Washington, and Darren Butler in Istanbul. Written by Darren Butler and Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones and William Maclean
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