A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, to more than two years in prison and banned him from holding political office for insulting officials more than three years ago.
Supporters of the high-profile 52-year-old mayor said the move was an attempt to silence a key challenger of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ahead of a national election in 2023.
Imamoğlu was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison for insulting members of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council.
The mayor, who belongs to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), is expected to appeal the verdict. However, it is not clear if the appeal will be considered before the presidential and parliamentary elections in June of next year.
Polls indicate a drop in Erdoğan’s approval ratings as inflation has soared to more than 84 percent.
In March 2019, in a watershed moment in Turkish politics, Imamoğlu was elected mayor of Istanbul, the country’s economic and cultural powerhouse. It was a big blow to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had controlled the city for a quarter-century.
The AKP pushed to cancel the election results, citing irregularities. As a result, the election was repeated a few months later and Imamoğlu won again.
He was charged with insulting senior public officials after he described canceling the first election as an act of “foolishness” in November 2019. The mayor denied insulting the electoral council, arguing that his comments were a response to Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu calling him “a fool” and accusing him of criticizing Turkey during a visit to the European Parliament.
Thousands gathered outside the court on Wednesday to express their support for Imamoğlu, and called on Erdoğan to resign.
“This decision is proof that the rulers of this country have no aim to bring justice and democracy to the country,” Imamoğlu told the crowd while standing on the top of a bus, calling the decision “a great unlawfulness.”
The leader of the opposition Good Party (İYİ) Meral Aksener traveled to Istanbul from Ankara to support the mayor.
“A great fear lies behind this decision,” she said standing next to Imamoğlu and recalled that Erdoğan himself was unjustly removed from the Istanbul mayor’s office for reading a poem that the courts deemed to be a violation of Turkey’s secular laws.
“This song won’t end here,” she said, repeating a comment that Erdoğan made back then.
The U.S. State Department said it was deeply troubled and disappointed by the court decision.
“The unjust sentence is inconsistent with respect for human rights, with respect to fundamental freedoms and rule of law,” deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said.