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Erdogan rival sentenced to jail for 'insulting' officials

December 14, 2022

A Turkish court sentenced the mayor of Istanbul, a key opponent of President Erdogan, to two years and seven months in jail and barred him from politics. Erdogan is renowned for liberal use of laws against "insults."

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu greets his supporters as they gather in front of his office
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu greets his supporters as they gather in front of his officeImage: ONUR GUNAL/IBB/REUTERS

 A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to two years and seven months in prison for allegedly insulting members of Turkey's Supreme Electoral Council. 

Imamoglu is a key opponent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently hinted that he would run for reelection next year for the last time. 

The court also imposed a political ban on Imamoglu that could lead to his removal from office and would be even more likely to rule him out from standing in next year's presidential election.

The sentencing and the political ban must be confirmed by an appeals court. 

What has been the reaction to the ruling?

Imamoglu said the verdict was politically motivated and unlawful. 

"This decision is proof that there is no justice left in Turkey," he told hundreds of supporters outside the municipality building in Sarachane district.

"I neither dismay nor give up... We will make those who tried to sentence us regret it at the ballot box," Imamoglu added.

Thousands of his supporters gathered to denounce the ruling against him. They shouted slogans like, "Rights, Law, Justice!'' and called on the government and Erdogan to resign. 

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Imamoglu's Republican People's Party, cut short a visit to Germany to return to Turkey and back the popular mayor.

"No [party member] will yield to bullying or take a step back,'' Kilicdaroglu said in a video message before leaving Berlin.

Opposition politician Meral Aksener recalled that Erdogan himself was unjustly removed from the post of Istanbul's mayor in the 1990s for reading a poem that the courts ruled was a violation of Turkey's secular laws.

"This song won't end here,'' she said, repeating a comment that Erdogan made at the time.

Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu gather in front of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality during a protest
Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu gathered in front of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Image: YASIN AKGUL/AFP

A US State Department spokesperson said Washington was "deeply troubled and disappointed" by the ruling. 

"This unjust sentence is inconsistent with respect for human rights, with respect to fundamental freedoms and rule of law," the spokesperson said. 

What is the case against Imamoglu? 

Imamoglu narrowly won local elections in 2019. His victory, which was confirmed after a rerun, ended a 25-year domination by Erdogan's conservative allies in Istanbul.

He was tried over a 2019 speech in which he said the annulment of the first round of the election was "foolishness."

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu publicly accused Imamoglu of "defaming" the election officials.

Imamoglu denies insulting the officials, and says that the comment was a response to Soylu for using the same language against him. 

The Turkish regime has used defamation and "insulting" charges to crack down on dissent. Those convicted of particularly insulting the president face a jail sentence of between one and four years.

Since Erdogan became president in 2014, thousands in Turkey have been convicted of insulting the president. However, in 2016, following a coup attempt and amid growing international attention on his wave of attempted prosecutions, Erdogan said he would drop all such cases in a one-off gesture.

Turkey: The insulted president

Turkey's 2023 elections

Wednesday's ruling came six months ahead of scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections. 

While the opposition is yet to formally choose a candidate, Imamoglu has been widely seen as a potential leading challenger to Erdogan.

In televised remarks ahead of the ruling, Imamoglu said the next campaign would be Erdogan's last "because he is going to lose."

Critics say the ruling is intended to eliminate Imamoglu as a challenger to Erdogan.

fb/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)