A court in Turkey sentenced the mayor of Istanbul, the country’s most populous city, to two years and seven months in prison Wednesday on charges of insulting members of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council.
The court convicted Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and also imposed a political ban that could lead to his removal from office. Imamoglu, who belongs to the main opposition Republican People’s Party, is expected to appeal the verdict.
Critics alleged the mayor’s trial was an attempt to eliminate a key opponent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in June. Polls indicate a drop in Erdogan’s popularity ratings amid an economic turmoil and inflation at more than 84%.
Imamoglu was elected to lead Istanbul in March 2019. His win was a historic blow to Erdogan and the president’s Justice and Development Party, which had controlled Istanbul for a quarter-century. The party pushed to void the municipal election results in the city of 16 million, alleging irregularities.
The challenge resulted in a repeat of the election a few months later, which Imamoglu also won.
Imamoglu was charged with insulting senior public officials after he described canceling legitimate elections as an act of “foolishness” on Nov. 4, 2019.
The mayor denied insulting members of the electoral council, insisting his words were a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu calling him “a fool” and accusing Imamoglu of criticizing Turkey during a visit to the European Parliament.
Thousands gathered in front of the municipal building to denounce the verdict against the popular mayor, shouting “Rights, Law, Justice!” and calling on the government and Erdogan to resign.
“This decision is proof that the rulers of this country have no aim to bring justice and democracy to the country,” Imamoglu said as he addressed the crowd from the top of a bus. “They have stopped fighting honestly and bravely. They are resorting to all kinds of tricks to protect their order.”
Opposition politician Meral Aksener, whose center-right party joined forces with the Republican People’s Party in the 2019 municipal elections, traveled to Istanbul from Ankara in a show of support for the mayor.
“It’s when (governments) are afraid that they oppress and carry out injustices,” she said, standing besides Imamoglu. “A great fear lies behind this decision.”
Aksener recalled that Erdogan had served as Istanbul’s mayor in the 1990s and was unjustly removed from office for reading a poem that the courts deemed to be a violation of Turkey’s secular laws.
“This song won’t end here,” she said, repeating a comment that Erdogan made at the time.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, cut short a visit to Germany to return to Turkey and lend his support to Imamoglu.
During the trial, the court heard testimony from Imamoglu’s press officer, Murat Ongun, who confirmed that the mayor’s words were in response to Soylu.
“Either before or after this event, or even on May 6 (2019), when the elections were canceled, I did not hear any negative words from Ekrem Imamoglu concerning the (Supreme Electoral Council) members,” the T24 news website quoted Ongun as saying. “All of his statements were made toward political figures.”
But in a video posted on social media, Soylu insisted the mayor’s comments were directed at the electoral council members.
After the 2019 elections, several mayors from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, were removed from office over alleged links to Kurdish militants and replaced by state-appointed trustees.
Dozens of HDP lawmakers and thousands of party members were arrested on terror-related accusations as part of a government crackdown on the party.