- The mayor of Istanbul was sentenced to 2 years and 7 months in prison
- Imamoglu is accused of insulting state officials in his speech
- He is seen as the strongest possible candidate in the 2023 elections
- Supporters shout slogans in front of the municipal headquarters
ISTANBUL, Dec 14 (Reuters) – A Turkish court sentenced Istanbul Mayor Akram Imamoglu to prison on Wednesday and banned the opposition politician seen as a strong potential challenger to President Tayyip Erdogan in next year’s elections.
İmamoğlu was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison, along with a ban, for insulting government officials in a speech he gave after winning the Istanbul municipal elections in 2019, both of which must be upheld by an appeals court.
Riot police were deployed outside the courthouse on the Asian side of the city of 17 million, although Imamoglu continued to work as usual and suspended the proceedings.
At his municipal headquarters across the Bosphorus on the European side of Istanbul, he told thousands of supporters that the verdict was a “deep lawlessness” that “proves there is no justice in Turkey today.”
According to him, voters will answer in the presidential and parliamentary elections, which will be held by June next year.
The vote could be the biggest political challenge yet for Erdogan, who is trying to extend his rule into a third decade amid a collapsing currency and rampant inflation that has further increased the cost of living for Turks.
The six-party opposition alliance has yet to agree on its presidential candidate, and Imamoglu has been put forward as a possible front-runner to run against Erdogan.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the chairman of Imamoğlu’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said that he cut short his trip to Germany and returned to Turkey, “seriously violating the law and justice”.
US State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said the US State Department was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the verdict. “This unjust sentence contradicts respect for human rights, respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law,” he added.
‘A VERY SHORT DAY’
European Parliament rapporteur for Turkey, Nacho Sánchez Amor, said he did not believe in the “unreasonable” sentence.
“#Justice in Turkey is in a disastrous state, being grossly abused for political purposes. Very sad day,” he tweeted.
İmamoğlu was on trial for a speech after the Istanbul election in which he said those who annulled the primary vote, in which Erdogan narrowly defeated the AK Party candidate, were “idiots”. Imamoglu says that these words are a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu’s use of the same language against him.
After preliminary results were annulled, he comfortably won a run-off vote, ending 25 years of rule by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors in Turkey’s largest city.
The outcome of next year’s elections appears to depend on the CHP and other opposition parties’ ability to unite 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 Turkey’s national politics, was briefly jailed in 1999 for reciting a poem that a court ruled incited religious hatred.
Salahaddin Demirtaş, the imprisoned ex-leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), wrote on his Twitter account that Imamoglu should be sent to the prison where Erdogan is being held so that he can eventually continue his path to the presidency.
A prison sentence or political ban against Imamoglu should be upheld in appeals courts, which could extend the outcome of the case beyond the election date.
Critics say that Turkish courts are bending to Erdogan’s will. The government says the court is independent.
Professor of Criminal Law of Atılım University, Timuchin Köprülü, said, “The decision will be final after the Supreme Court decides whether to uphold the decision or not. In these circumstances, it would be wrong to say that the political ban is in force.” Ankara told Reuters after the decision.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Hüseyin Hayatsever in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writer: Daren Butler and Dominic Evans; Edited by Gareth Jones, William Maclean
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