A Turkish court has sentenced the mayor of Istanbul to more than two and a half years in prison on charges of contempt of members of the Supreme Electoral Council.
The court on Wednesday also imposed a political ban on Ekrem Imamoglu, a key opposition politician, which could lead to his removal from office in Turkey’s largest city.
Imamoglu called the sentence “political and illegal”.
The popular mayor, who belongs to the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is seen as a key opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The verdict was delivered nearly six months before the presidential and parliamentary elections.
A prison sentence or political ban is expected to be upheld in the appeals courts, potentially extending the outcome of the case beyond the election, which is due by June.
Sinem Koseoglu of Al Jazeera, in a report from Istanbul, said that the appeals court can confirm the verdict, cancel it or decide on a “completely different verdict”.
“But we expect that Ekrem Imamoglu, even if he doesn’t spend a night in prison, … will be banned from politics,” Koseoglu said. “He will ban him from running in mayoral elections in 2024 and remove him from his membership in the main opposition party.”
Critics said the mayoral trial was an attempt to eliminate a key opponent of Erdogan before the presidential election in June.
“I talked to people from the ruling AK [Justice and Development] Party, and even if they are against Ekrem Imamoglu, … they say this will not serve Erdogan,” Koseoglu said.
“Many argue that the goal is to ban it [Imamoglu] since the election,” he said.
The US State Department said it was “deeply disturbed and disappointed” by the prison sentence.
“This unjust ruling is inconsistent with respect for human rights, with respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law,” State Department chief deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said Wednesday.
Imamoglu was elected mayor in March 2019. His victory was a major blow to Erdogan and his AK Party, which had controlled Istanbul for a quarter of a century. The party pushed to cancel the municipal election results in the city of 16 million, citing irregularities.
The challenge led to a re-election a few months later, which Imamoglu won by a larger margin.
Imamoglu was accused of insulting senior public officials after he described the cancellation of the first mayoral election as an act of “folly”. The charge carried a maximum prison sentence of four years.
The mayor denied insulting electoral council members, insisting his words were a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. Soylu called Imamoglu “a fool” and accused him of criticizing Turkey during a visit to the European Parliament.
Thousands of supporters of the mayor protested against the verdict in front of the town hall.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP leader, interrupted a visit to Germany to return to Turkey and lend his support to Imamoglu.
During the trial, the court heard testimony from Imamoglu’s publicist Murat Ongun and another aide who confirmed that the mayor’s words were in response to Soylu.
“Either before or after this event, or even on May 6th  when the elections were cancelled, I didn’t hear any negative words from Ekrem Imamoglu about the [Supreme Electoral Council] members,” Ongun said on the T24 news website. “All of his statements were made towards political figures.”
But in a video posted to social media, Soylu insisted the mayor’s comments were directed at council members, who canceled the election.
The outcome of the 2023 election is seen as hinged on the ability of the CHP and other opposition parties to join forces around a single candidate to challenge Erdogan and the AK Party, which has ruled Turkey for two decades.