(CNSNews.com) – Six months out from an election that Turkey’s long-ruling Islamist president hopes will deliver him another term, a court in Istanbul handed the city’s popular mayor a political ban that would prevent him from running for the top office, after convicting him on a count of insulting electoral officials.
The politically charged trial ended with Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu sentenced to a little over two-and-a-half years’ in prison, and a political ban applicable for that same period.
Imamoglu’s lawyers indicated he would appeal the conviction. If upheld, the ban would prevent him from remaining as mayor, or running in the June 2023 election against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Supporters of the mayor gathered at the city hall after the verdict in a show of solidarity. Addressing the crowd, he said he would neither be dismayed nor give up.
On Twitter, Imamoglu he called the court ruling “an attack on the will of millions of Istanbulites who democratically elected a mayor for their city three years ago.”
The trial arose out of an impromptu comment made by Imamoglu, a member of the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), relating to that decisive election.
Imamoglu’s 2019 victory wrested control of Turkey’s biggest and most important city from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) which, along with its Islamist precursors, had governed Istanbul for the previous 25 years.
(Erdogan had himself served as the city’s mayor from 1994-1998, a springboard for national office. He became prime minister in 2003, president in 2014, and then oversaw controversial constitutional changes enabling him to run again in 2023 for a third presidential term.)
The AKP disputed the outcome of the March 2019 Istanbul election and, a month after Imamoglu had been sworn in, the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) annulled the result, citing irregularities. A do-over election was held in June, in which Imamoglu defeated his AKP rival by an even larger margin, and he was sworn in a second time.
At a press conference several months later, Imamoglu in response to a reporter’s question said those who canceled the March 2019 elections were “fools” for tarnishing Turkey’s global image.
He was accused of insulting the “honor, dignity and prestige” of YSK officials and indicted under a provision of Turkey’s penal code that provides for up to four years’ imprisonment for insulting public officers carrying out their duties.
Imamoglu has not indicated plans to run for president in 2023 – in fact he told reporters earlier this year he was not considering doing so “at this time” – but he has long been seen as having presidential ambitions. If the conviction is upheld, the decision will be out of his hands.
Under Erdogan’s long and autocratic rule, Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and other NATO allies have been turbulent at times, a situation set to continue if he wins a further five-year term next June.
State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Wednesday the administration was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the verdict against Imamoglu.
“This unjust sentence is inconsistent with respect for human rights, with respect to fundamental freedoms and the rule of law,” he said during a teleconference briefing.
“The right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association is fundamental to any healthy democracy, and we continue to urge Turkey to respect these fundamental freedoms and to bring this case to a swift and just resolution,” Patel said.
‘Political, not legal’
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) tweeted that the sentencing of Imamoglu “demonstrates Turkey’s continued descent toward autocracy.”
“Free elections are the lifeblood of democracy,” he said. “Erdogan cannot bar his political opponents from office & at the same time pretend to share our values.”
The Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House said the court decision “fundamentally undermines the will of Turkish voters and is a clear violation of democratic principles.”
It urged the appeal court to overturn the ruling, adding, “A democratic government does not fear its political opposition.”
Back in Turkey, the court verdict drew strong criticism, including from beyond the mayor’s political party.
“The court’s decision on Mr. Imamoglu is political, not legal,” tweeted Pervin Buldan, co-leader of the third largest party in parliament, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
“Your era of eliminating the election results that reflect the will of the people with trustee and judicial coups and conspiracies will definitely come to an end,” she said. “You will be defeated by the will of the people!”
Abdullah Gul, a former Turkish president and Erdogan ally-turned-critic, called the ruling “a great injustice not only against Ekrem Imamoglu but also against Turkey.”
The independence of both the Turkish courts and the YSK has previously been called into question.
Earlier this year an appeals court upheld a sentence of another senior CHP leader in Istanbul, Canan Kaftancioglu, now banned from elected office for more than four years after being convicted of insulting Erdogan and the government.
Meanwhile the YSK’s actions in a crucial 2017 referendum that endorsed sweeping executive powers for Erdogan raised concerns. Late in the day it decided that more than 2.5 million votes should be regarded as valid despite not being properly stamped by “ballot box committees.” International observers said the decision undermined an important safeguard against fraud.
The referendum passed by a margin of less than 1.4 million votes.
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