A Turkish prosecutor requested on Friday that a court convict and impose a political ban on Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a popular rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for insulting public officials, but the case was adjourned to December.
Polls show Imamoglu would be a strong challenger to Erdogan if he were to run in next year’s national elections. A main opposition presidential candidate has not yet been chosen.
Imamoglu narrowly won the municipal election in March 2019 over Erdogan’s ruling AK Party candidate. After those results were annulled, he won the vote rerun by a comfortable margin. His victory ended the 25-year rule in Turkey’s largest city by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors.
Imamoglu is accused of insulting public officials in a speech he made in 2019, in which he said those who annulled the elections were “fools.” The charge carries a maximum prison sentence of four years.
A jail sentence or political ban would need to be upheld by any appeal courts, potentially extending beyond the election set for no later than June 2023.
The court adjourned the case on Friday to evaluate a defense lawyer’s request that the judge be recused. It set the next hearing for Dec. 14.
“The (prosecutor’s) opinion being produced without reviewing our judge recusal request is against judicial proceeding norms and shows that they came prepared with the ruling,” said Gokhan Gunaydin, a lawyer for Imamoglu.
Police officers sealed off roads approaching the courthouse on the Asian side of Istanbul, after a district governor banned protests in the area for the day.
More than 1,000 people gathered in support of Imamoglu at a city square around 2 km away, which was excluded from the ban.
The crowd held up his party’s banners and chanted “you’ll never walk alone.”
“I am ashamed of this court. I couldn’t care less,” Imamoglu said in an interview with broadcaster Fox TV on Friday morning.
The outcome of Turkey’s elections in 2023 is seen hinging on the ability of Imamoglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and others in opposition to join forces against Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has governed for two decades.
Critics say Turkish courts bend to Erdogan’s will. The government says the judiciary is independent.
Birol Baskan, non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said Imamoglu is the best chance the opposition has at defeating Erdogan but argued he may not be convicted.
“The courts are unlikely to convict him because that would make him a martyr in voters’ eyes and give him more momentum,’ he said.
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