ISTANBUL (AP) — Thousands of people gathered outside Istanbul’s municipal building for a second day Thursday to denounce a court verdict that could lead to the ousting of the city’s popular mayor and a ban on running in the elections next year.
An Istanbul court on Wednesday sentenced Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, 52, of insulting members of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council. The court sentenced him to two years and seven months in prison and issued a political ban.
Opposition parties, which have questioned the independence of the courts under the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, say Imamoglu’s prosecution and trial was an attempt to eliminate a key opponent of the Turkish leader.
The mayor plans to appeal the verdict and is expected to remain in office while the case is considered by a higher court.
Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, first as prime minister and then as president, is seeking another five-year term in a presidential election currently scheduled for June. He saw his popularity rating drop in a context of economic turbulence and galloping inflation.
An alliance of six opposition parties, including Imamoglu’s center-left Republican People’s Party, has yet to nominate a candidate, but polls have indicated the mayor has the potential to unseat Erdogan.
Leaders or representatives of the six parties attended Thursday’s rally in support of Imamoglu, whose condemnation sparked an international reaction.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called the court’s decision a violation of the mayor’s rights as well as an “unwarranted and politically calculated assault on Turkey’s political opposition” ahead of the 2023 election.
“The verdict against Ekrem İmamoglu is a travesty of justice and an attack on the democratic process, demonstrating that as the 2023 elections approach, the government is prepared to abuse the courts to sideline or silence key figures in the opposition,” said Tom Porteous, the advocacy group’s deputy. says the program director.
The US State Department said on Wednesday it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the outcome of the trial. “This unjust conviction is inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law,” State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said.
Imamoglu maintained he was targeted because of his success as mayor of Turkey’s most populous city.
“Sometimes in our country, no success goes unpunished,” he said at an opening ceremony for a care center for the elderly. “I therefore consider this meaningless and illegal punishment meted out to me as a reward for my success.”
Imamoglu was elected mayor of Istanbul in March 2019, delivering a historic blow to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which had controlled Istanbul for around a quarter of a century.
The ruling party has pushed for the annulment of election results in the city of 16 million, citing alleged irregularities. The challenge resulted in a repeat election a few months later, which Imamoglu also won.
The mayor was accused of insulting senior officials after he said in comments to reporters on November 4, 2019 that the cancellation of legitimate elections was “foolishness”.
Imamoglu denied insulting the members of the electoral council, insisting his words were a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who had called him “crazy”.