Turkish court sentences Erdogan’s rival to prison with political ban

  • The mayor of Istanbul was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison
  • Imamoglu accused of insulting officials in speeches
  • He is seen as a strong possible contender in the 2023 election
  • Supporters chant slogans outside the community headquarters

ISTANBUL, Dec 14 (Reuters) – A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to jail and a political sentence to the opposition politician, who is said to be a strong potential challenger to President Tayyip Erdogan in next year’s elections ban imposed.

Imamoglu was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison and a ban, both of which must be upheld by an appeals court, for insulting officials in a speech he made after winning Istanbul’s 2019 local elections.

Riot police were stationed outside the courthouse on the Asian side of the city of 17 million, although Imamoglu continued his work as usual and dismissed the court case.

At his urban headquarters across the Bosphorus on the European side of Istanbul, he told thousands of supporters the ruling was a “profound unlawfulness” that “proved that there is no justice in Turkey today.”

Voters would respond in the presidential and general elections due next June, he said.

The vote could pose 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 have pushed up Turkey’s cost of living.

A six-party opposition alliance has yet to agree on its presidential nominee, and Imamoglu has been mooted as a possible leading challenger for a candidacy against Erdogan.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) of Imamoglu, said he would call off his visit to Germany and return to Turkey in response to what he described as a “grave violation of the law and justice”.

The U.S. State Department was “deeply concerned and disappointed” by the ruling, said Deputy Secretary of State Vedant Patel. “This unjust verdict goes against respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law,” he added.

“VERY SAD DAY”

The European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, Nacho Sanchez Amor, expressed his disbelief at the “unimaginable” verdict.

“The judiciary in #Turkey is in a desolate state, it is being grossly abused for political purposes. Very sad day,” he tweeted.

Imamoglu was taken to court over a post-election speech in Istanbul when he said those who annulled the first vote – in which he narrowly defeated a candidate from Erdogan’s AK Party – were “fools”. Imamoglu says the remark was in response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu for using the same language against him.

After the initial results were annulled, he confidently won the re-vote, ending the 25-year rule of the AKP and its Islamist predecessors in Turkey’s largest city.

The outcome of next year’s elections depends on the ability of the CHP and other opposition figures to combine forces around a single candidate to challenge Erdogan and the AKP, which has ruled Turkey since 2002.

Erdogan, who was also mayor of Istanbul before rising to dominate Turkish national politics, was jailed briefly in 1999 for reciting a poem a court described as inciting religious hatred.

Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), tweeted that Imamoglu should be jailed in the same prison where Erdogan was being held so he could eventually pursue his path to the presidency.

A prison sentence or a political ban on Imamoglu would have to be upheld in appeals courts, potentially extending the trial beyond the election date.

Critics say Turkish courts are bowing to Erdogan’s will. The government says the judiciary is independent.

“The verdict will only become final after the higher court has decided whether or not to uphold the verdict. In these circumstances, it would be wrong to say that the political ban is in effect,” Timucin Koprulu, a professor of criminal law at Ankara’s Atilim University, told Reuters after the ruling.

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Huseyin Hayatsever in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Daren Butler in Istanbul; writing by Daren Butler and Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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