AP

Thousands rally in Istanbul to support mayor facing ouster

Dec 14, 2022, 4:15 PM | Updated: Dec 15, 2022, 9:08 am

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, speaks to his supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Wednesday, Dec....

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, speaks to his supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. A court in Turkey sentenced the mayor of Istanbul, the country's most populous city, to two years and seven months in prison Wednesday on charges of insulting members of Turkey's Supreme Electoral Council. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

ISTANBUL (AP) — Thousands of people gathered outside the Istanbul municipal building for a second day on Thursday to denounce a legal verdict that could lead to the city’s popular mayor being ousted from office and barred from running in elections next year.

An Istanbul court on Wednesday convicted Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, 52, of insulting members of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council. The court sentenced him to two years and seven months in prison and imposed a political ban.

Opposition parties, which have questioned the independence of the courts under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, allege Imamoglu’s prosecution and trial were an attempt to eliminate a key opponent to the Turkish leader.

The mayor plans to appeal the verdict and is expected to remain in office while the case is under review by a higher court.

Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, first as prime minister and then as president, is seeking a new five-year term in office in a presidential election currently scheduled for June. He has seen a dip in his approval ratings amid economic turmoil and soaring inflation.

An alliance of six opposition parties, including Imamoglu’s center-left Republican Peoples’ Party, has yet to nominate a candidate, but polls indicated the mayor had the potential to unseat Erdogan.

The leaders or representatives of the six parties were taking part in Thursday’s rally in support of Imamoglu, whose conviction sparked international criticism.

“This sentence is disproportionate and confirms the systemic lack of independence of the judiciary and the undue political pressure on judges and prosecutors in Turkey,” European Union spokesperson Peter Stano said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called the court’s decision a violation of the mayor’s rights as well as an “unjustified and politically calculated assault on Turkey’s political opposition” in the run-up to the 2023 election.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the trial’s outcome.

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said during a visit to Ankara that an independent judiciary and freedom of expression “are values that are dear to us.”

“Turkey will mark its centenary next year in 2023 which will also coincide with parliamentary and presidential elections, which must reflect the choice and convictions of the Turkish people,” Lahbib said during a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Cavusoglu responded: “The public’s will has always been reflected and governments in Turkey have always taken office through the people’s vote.”

Imamoglu was elected mayor of Istanbul in March 2019, dealing a historic blow to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which had controlled Istanbul for around a quarter-century.

The ruling party pressed for an annulment of the election results in the city of 16 million, citing alleged irregularities. The challenge resulted in a repeat of the election a few months later, which Imamoglu also won.

The mayor was charged with insulting senior public officials after he said in comments to journalists on Nov. 4, 2019 that canceling legitimate elections was “foolishness.”

Imamoglu denied insulting electoral council members, insisting that his words were a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who had called him a “fool.”

On Thursday, the mayor’s supporters called for Erdogan’s government to resign. Addressing the crowd in front of Town Hall, Imamoglu said: “You elected a mayor not once, but twice in a row. They got the court to issue a decision to remove the mayor that you elected and to imprison him.”

“Together, we will overcome these dark days,” he said.

Ahmet Davutoglu, a former prime minister who served in Erdogan’s government, urged judges and prosecutors not to yield to government pressure as the country heads toward next year’s elections. Davutoglu left Erdogan’s party in 2019, formed his own political movement and joined the opposition alliance.

“Members of the judiciary; You have a historical burden upon your shoulders. Your decision will shape the future of Turkey,” he said. “Do not follow any political instructions.”

__

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

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Thousands rally in Istanbul to support mayor facing ouster