ISTANBUL (AP) – A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced the mayor of Istanbul, the country’s most populous city, to two years and seven months in prison on charges of insulting members of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council.
The court convicted Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and also imposed a political ban that could lead to his removal from office. Imamoglu, who belongs to the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, is expected to appeal the verdict.
Critics said the mayoral trial was an attempt to eliminate a key opponent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is expected to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in June. Polls point to a decline in Erdogan’s popularity amid economic turmoil and inflation above 84%.
Imamoglu was elected to lead Istanbul in March 2019. His victory was a historic coup for Erdogan and the president’s Justice and Development Party, which had controlled Istanbul for a quarter of a century. The party pushed to cancel the municipal election results in the city of 16 million, citing irregularities.
The challenge ended with the election being repeated a few months later, also won by Imamoglu.
Imamoglu was accused of insulting senior public officials after he described canceling the legitimate election as an act of “folly” on November 4, 2019.
The mayor denied insulting electoral council members, insisting his words were a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu calling him “a fool” and accusing Imamoglu of criticizing Turkey during a visit to the European Parliament.
Thousands gathered in front of the town hall to denounce the verdict against the popular mayor, shouting “Rights, Law, Justice!” and calling on the government and Erdogan to step down.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, cut short a visit to Germany to return to Turkey and lend his support to Imamoglu.
“No one (party member) will give in to bullying or step back,” Kilicdaroglu said in a video message before leaving Berlin. “We promised to bring the country out of this darkness.”
As the trial began, the court heard testimony from Imamoglu’s publicist Murat Ongun and another aide, who confirmed that the mayor’s words were in response to Soylu.
“Neither before nor after this event, or even on May 6 (2019) when the election was canceled, I did not hear any negative word from Ekrem Imamoglu regarding the (Supreme Election Council) members,” Ongun told news site T24 . . “All of his statements were made against political figures.”
But in a video posted to social media, Soylu insisted the mayor’s comments were directed at electoral council members, who canceled the election.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.