Cases against opposition politicians mount ahead of Turkish elections

Critics claim the government has weaponized the judiciary to neutralize leading figures in the Republican People’s Party.

ISTANBUL — It’s been a busy week for lawyers representing Turkish opposition politicians. 

Two prominent figures in the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) — Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and the head of the party’s Istanbul branch, Canan Kaftancioglu — have both been involved in cases that many see as attempts to sideline them ahead of elections due in the next 12 months. 

The pair are responsible for the CHP’s victory in Istanbul three years ago, arguably the greatest setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in 2002.

Prior to the CHP’s local election triumph, which was mirrored in other major cities such as Ankara and Antalya, Istanbul had been governed for 25 years by the AKP or its Islamist predecessor, the Refah Party. 

Istanbul is also Erdogan’s home city and where he started out in politics, serving as mayor in the 1990s. 

Kaftancioglu on Tuesday presented herself at Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul after a jail term of four years and 11 months for several “insult” charges was upheld by the Supreme Court. 

Considered the backroom architect of the party’s success in 2019, Kaftancioglu was convicted over tweets and statements made between 2013 and 2017. 

Although she was released on a form of probation (such crimes with a sentence of less than five years are usually downgraded to noncustodial judicial control), she is still waiting to hear the length of any political ban, according to a CHP source. 

The following day, Imamoglu, who is considered one of three favorites to face Erdogan in the presidential election, was expected to find out the verdict in his insult case. The hearing, however, was unexpectedly adjourned to September. 

He is accused of insulting members of the Supreme Electoral Council in a news conference in November 2019, when he allegedly referred to them as foolish. Imamoglu claims the remark was not aimed at the board but at politicians behind the decision to annul the election’s initial result. 

A relatively unknown figure before the election, Imamoglu won the March 2019 poll by 13,000 votes — but the election authority ordered a rerun following complaints from the AKP about voting irregularities. The second vote in June saw him win by more than 800,000 ballots. 

Prosecutors have called for a prison sentence of more than four years for Imamoglu. As in the Kaftancioglu case, he is not expected to serve jail time but could be barred from standing for election or holding office. 

Speaking after the postponed hearing, Imamoglu said it was “unfortunate for the judiciary to even initiate such trial,” adding, “There has been a long tradition of using the judiciary as a weapon to suppress the opposition.” 

While the government denies any influence over Turkey’s judiciary, saying courts remain independent, others maintain the judicial system has become a tool for clamping down on political dissent. 

The prime target for such judicial repression, according to critics, has been the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a left-wing party with roots in the Kurdish movement. 

Since a crackdown in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt, the party has seen thousands of its members put on trial, usually on terrorism charges relating to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated a terror organization by the United States and the European Union as well as Turkey. 

Dozens of its elected officials have also been barred from office and jailed, the most notable being Selahattin Demirtas, the party’s charismatic former co-leader. 

The party, which, after the CHP, is the second largest opposition group with 56 lawmakers in parliament, also faces a legal case for its closure over alleged ties to the PKK. The HDP says the case is politically motivated. 

Ali Yildiz, a Brussels-based human rights lawyer, said the verdicts in cases of Kaftancioglu and Osman Kavala, a philanthropist jailed for life in April for allegedly backing nationwide protests in 2013, show the government wants to exploit the “powerful leverage” it has due to the war in Ukraine. 

“One can expect that the HDP will be closed and the crackdown on other opposition parties will be intensified,” he told Al Monitor. 

“At this point, the opposition should understand that it is time to admit that the current state of the Turkish judicial system has nothing to do with it being the legitimate judicial branch but rather with it being the willing executioners of President Erdogan.” 

Yildiz added that the “political” cases are “directly linked to Erdogan’s strategy of eliminating key assets of the 'enemy' powers in the face of the forthcoming 'war,’ namely the 2023 elections.” 

The political battles played out in Turkish courtrooms, however, are not entirely one-sided. 

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has filed a lawsuit for five kurus (the equivalent of 0.003 US cents) against Erdogan over allegedly insulting remarks the president made on Wednesday.