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Turkish court sentences opposition leader to jail, political ban

As Turkey heads for a tight election, an Istanbul court has sentenced Ekrem Imamoglu, seen by some as the man who could unseat Erdogan, to two years and seven months in prison for insulting a public officer.
Mayor of Istanbul metropolitan municipality Ekrem Imamoglu speaks during an interview to AFP on April 2, 2020 in Istanbul, amid the spread of the epidemic COVID-19 coronavirus. - Istanbul's opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu on Thursday called for more robust action and a lockdown after Turkey's largest city reported the highest number of cases in the country. Without a strict lockdown, Imamoglu warned, even if 15 percent of the residents in Istanbul would move around rather than stay home, that would represen

A Turkish court sentenced Istanbul's charismatic mayor to prison Wednesday over a remark he made after defeating an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the 2019 local elections. 

Though Ekrem Imamoglu will not serve time in prison as the sentence is shorter than five years, it effectively bars him from political office for the duration of his sentence of two years, seven months and 15 days and forces him to leave his post as mayor of Istanbul. But the ruling will have to be upheld on appeal before it is enforced.

“Until this legal process is finalized, our mayor will continue his duties,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office told Al-Monitor, explaining that the appeals process is expected to take between three months and one year.

A few hours before the verdict was read, Imamoglu called for his supporters to gather in front of the town hall in Istanbul’s Sarachane neighborhood.

Imamoglu, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), faced the crowds that gathered in front of the town hall. “The mandate given to me by the people cannot be taken away by a handful of people. Our struggle is just starting now,” he said as his supporters called for the government to step down.

“What crazy person could contain your will? We will demonstrate our solidarity tonight. Tomorrow, we will even be stronger and more numerous,” he added.

“Whatever the verdict, I invite all to Sarachane at 16:00 hours, either to join our happiness or demonstrate our determination,” he wrote. His tweet had nearly 120,000 likes and more than 25,000 retweets at time of publication and “16:00 hours” became a trending topic in Turkish-language Twitter.

But one person was conspicuously absent among the hundreds in Sarachane: Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the party’s chair, was visiting Berlin. “I warn the [Presidential Palace] for the last time: Keep your hands off the judiciary,” he said in a video message from Germany, accusing the government of weaponizing the justice system to mute the opposition. “Anything but an acquittal is proof that this case is politicized.” CHP spokespeople said that Kilicdaroglu was heading back to Turkey.

Meral Aksener, the leader of the right-wing IYI Party and a key figure in the coalition of six opposition parties, immediately joined the mayor. “The government that convicted my brother Ekrem is one that is very much afraid of the future,” she told crowds Wednesday evening. “The leaders of six opposition parties will be here tomorrow to stand against restrictions.”

Other position parties, including the left-wing Workers Party of Turkey and AKP offshoot DEVA, also announced that they were heading to the courthouse. CHP mayors from the key cities of Ankara, Izmir and Antalya also expressed support for the mayor, saying that the verdict was illegal and unlawful.

Imamoglu has come under the wrath of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for snatching Istanbul from the AKP’s clutches in 2019. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who started his career as Istanbul mayor and saw the cosmopolis of 16 million as his turf, refused to recognize the first balloting on March 31, 2019. But a redo of the polls delivered an even firmer victory to Imamoglu. For many, the eloquent speaker from the Black Sea was the young knight who would end the president’s two decades in power. Though Imamoglu’s shining armor has slightly dimmed in the last year, some polls still place him slightly ahead of Erdogan in a presidential race.

“We gave the ruling party a slap in Istanbul, but they seem to be wanting more,” Imamoglu told a cheering crowd after the verdict was read.

With Turkey on the brink of tight presidential and legislative elections, Imamoglu’s trial has become a litmus test for the country’s ever-deteriorating judicial independence. “I would like to trust Turkish justice. However, I also wonder why the judge who had to decide on my case was suddenly transferred to another city,” Imamoglu said on HalkTV two days before the trial. “If [the sentence] is confirmed after the appeal, it will mean another massive drop in Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture,” tweeted Marc Pierini, former EU envoy to Turkey and Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe. “Justice in Turkey is in a calamitous state, grossly used for political purposes. Very sad day,” tweeted Nacho Sanchez Amor, the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur.

The charges center around Imamoglu’s statement after his second win, when he called those who canceled the March 31 election “idiots.” Members of the High Electoral Board, which ruled for the redo of the Istanbul ballot, opened a case against the mayor based on Art. 125 of the Penal Code, which stipulates up to four years of imprisonment for insulting public officers for carrying out their duties.

Imamoglu’s lawyer Kemal Polat has maintained that Imamoglu’s words did not target the election board but were a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who had previously referred to the mayor as “the idiot” who complained to the Council of Europe about the annulment of the Istanbul polls. Polat and witnesses maintained that journalists had queried Imamoglu about Soylu’s remark and Imamoglu had merely replied that Soylu had to consider “the idiots who annulled the elections.”

In Wednesday’s trial, Polat showed the court a video of Soylu’s press conference where he made the remark and asked the court to call Soylu to testify. The judge rejected the request. “Is there a case against the interior minister who called an elected mayor an idiot?” Polat reportedly said during the trial.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch associate director for Europe and Central Asia, described the case as a “grotesque” trial that exemplified the threat that leading figures in Turkey’s political opposition face in the run-up to the 2023 elections. Webb pointed out that another leading figure of the CHP,  Canan Kaftancioglu, had already been banned from elected office after a “bogus conviction for tweets.”

Kaftancioglu, the CHP’s outspoken Istanbul chair and the co-architect of the 2019 win, was sentenced earlier this year to four years in prison for insulting the president and the government. Kaftancioglu, whose trial dragged on since 2019,  was acquitted of charges of spreading terrorist propaganda based on her tweets that dated back to 2014. The sentence bans her from running for parliament in upcoming elections, but like Imamoglu, she will not serve jail time.

In the case of Imamoglu, a conviction could rule him out of the presidential poll. The opposition’s Table of Six, an electoral alliance that brings the CHP and IYI together with four smaller center-right parties, has not yet disclosed its presidential candidate. However, many think that Imamoglu, considered a popular but reckless figure and not enough of a team player, has largely lost his broad appeal.

Imamoglu told HalkTV that he was happy with his present post and is not seeking to be a presidential candidate. “The candidate after my heart, after the heart of all CHP members, is Kilicdaroglu,” Imamoglu said. “But the decision lies with the Table of Six.”

This developing story has been updated since first publication.

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