ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Istanbul’s popular opposition mayor to nearly three years jail in a politically charged defamation trial that effectively bars him from standing in next June’s presidential election.
Ekrem Imamoglu’s team immediately vowed to appeal his conviction in a case stemming from a remark he made after defeating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ally in a hugely controversial 2019 mayoral race.
People sentenced to less than four years are rarely put behind bars in Turkey.
But his conviction for “insulting a public official” disqualifies the 52-year-old mayor — one of the brightest stars of Turkey’s main secular party — from politics for the duration of the sentence.
Imamoglu will continue heading Turkey’s largest and most fabled city while his appeal winds its way through the courts.
“Government resign!” hundreds of Imamoglu supporters chanted outside the mayor’s office moments after the verdict was read out.
“Imamoglu means freedom to me,” Istanbul housewife Firdevs Gulmez said as the crowd grew into the thousands.
“We love him. We did not expect such a punishment,” the 55-year-old said.
Imamoglu seized the moment by climbing atop a bus and addressing his supporters through a megaphone to huge cheers and waves of anti-government chants.
“What happened here can happen to anyone,” he warned. “We will make those who condemned us regret what they did through the ballot box.”
The trial focused on an offhand remark Imamoglu made to reporters a few months after defeating Erdogan’s ally in a re-run election held after his first victory was annulled.
Officials reported discovering hundreds of thousands of “suspicious votes” after Erdogan refused to acknowledge Imamoglu’s initial win in a city that he himself ran before entering national politics two decades ago.
The decision backfired badly on Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party.
Waves of protests and a groundswell of support from all political corners delivered Imamoglu an overwhelming victory in a re-run vote held that June.
Imamoglu let his frustration at the entire episode spill over a few months later by calling the people who annulled the first result “idiots.”
An Istanbul court sentenced Imamoglu to two years and seven-and-a-half months in prison for defamation.
It also applied a separate clause of the penal code that bars the mayor from politics.
Imamoglu’s pending disqualification comes with Turkey’s opposition parties still arguing about who should stand against Erdogan in the looming presidential vote.
The Istanbul mayor is among a handful of opposition leaders polls show could beat Erdogan in a head-to-head race.
Turkey’s MetroPoll research foundation head Ozer Sencar said the ruling threatened to hurt Erdogan by turning into a rallying cry for the opposition during the election campaign.
“This event could turn into a great opportunity for the opposition if they can take advantage of it,” Sencar said in a tweet.
Erdogan’s domination of Turkish politics has been shaken by an economic crisis that has been compounded by his unconventional approach to interest rates.
But more recent polls show Erdogan’s ratings beginning to recover thanks to his widely praised handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This places even more pressure on the opposition to put aside their personal rivalries in the election campaign.
Imamoglu’s CHP party is headed by Kemal Kilicdaroglu — a leftist former civil servant who generally performs poorly in opinion polls.
The CHP has been holding round-table talks with five smaller allies about a single candidate who would not split the anti-Erdogan vote.
Those talks have been mired in arguments over policy and general unease about fielding Kilicdaroglu instead of someone more likely to beat Erdogan.
Imamoglu appeared to sense a guilty verdict coming when he told reporters this week that Kilicdaroglu was the only candidate who could represent the CHP.
Kilicdaroglu blamed the verdict squarely on Erdogan.
“We see how the law is being massacred, how the state has surrendered to the will of one person, how justice has been corrupted, how revenge is being carried out,” Kilicdaroglu said in a video message recorded during a business trip to Berlin.
“But don’t worry. We will defend justice until the end,” he said before boarding an urgent flight back to Istanbul.