- The mayor of Istanbul was sentenced to 2 years and 7 months in prison
- Imamoglu accused of insulting public officials in the speech
- He is seen as a strong possible contender in the 2023 election
- Supporters chant slogans outside the municipality headquarters
ISTANBUL, Dec 14 (Reuters) – A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to prison 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 upheld by an appeals court, for insulting public officials in a speech he made after winning the 2019 Istanbul municipal elections.
Riot police were stationed outside the courthouse on the Asian side of the city of 17 million people, though Imamoglu continued to work as usual and dropped the court case.
At his municipal seat across the Bosphorus on the European side of Istanbul, he told thousands of supporters that the verdict marked a “profound illegality” that “proved that there is no justice in Turkey today”.
Voters will respond to presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next June, he said.
The vote could mark the biggest political challenge so far for Erdogan, who is seeking to extend his rule for a third decade in the face of a collapsing currency and rampant inflation that have pushed up the cost of living for Turks. .
A six-party opposition alliance has yet to agree on its own presidential candidate, and Imamoglu has been proposed as a possible lead challenger to run against Erdogan.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), in opposition to Imamoglu, said he cut short a visit to Germany and was returning to Turkey in response to what he called a “serious violation of law and justice”.
“VERY SAD DAY”
European Parliament rapporteur on Turkey, Nacho Sanchez Amor, expressed disbelief at the “inconceivable” verdict.
“Justice in #Turkey is in a calamitous state, grossly used for political purposes. Very sad day,” he tweeted.
Imamoglu was on trial for a speech after the Istanbul election when he said those who canceled the initial vote – in which he narrowly defeated a candidate from Erdogan’s AK Party – were “crazy”. Imamoglu says the remark was a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu for using the same language against him.
After the initial results were undone, he comfortably won the re-vote, ending the 25-year domination of Turkey’s largest city by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors.
The outcome of next year’s elections is seen to depend on the ability of the CHP and other opponents to join forces around a single candidate to challenge Erdogan and the AKP, which has ruled Turkey since 2002.
Erdogan, who also served as mayor of Istanbul before rising to dominate Turkish national politics, was briefly jailed in 1999 for reciting a poem that a court ruled was incitement to religious hatred.
Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed former leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), tweeted that Imamoglu should be jailed in the same prison where Erdogan was held so he can eventually follow his path to the presidency.
A prison sentence or political ban on Imamoglu is expected to be upheld in appeals courts, potentially extending the outcome of the case beyond the election date.
Critics say Turkish courts bow to Erdogan’s will. The government claims that the judiciary is independent.
“The sentence will be final only after the higher court decides whether or not to uphold the sentence. Under these circumstances, it would be wrong to say that the political ban is in place,” said Timucin Koprulu, a professor of criminal law at Atilim University in Ankara, he told Reuters after the ruling.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Huseyin Hayatsever in Ankara and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Written by Daren Butler and Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones
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