Thousands gather in Istanbul for second day of protests against mayor's political ban

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By Euronews  with AP, Reuters
Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu chant slogans as they gather in front of the municipal building in Istanbul, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.
Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu chant slogans as they gather in front of the municipal building in Istanbul, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.   -   Copyright  Khalil Hamra/AP

Thousands of people gathered outside of Istanbul municipal building on Thursday for the second day of protests against the conviction and political ban of the city's mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, sentenced to two years and seven months in prison.

The verdict was issued on Wednesday by the Turkish court, which found Imamoglu guilty of insulting public officials in a speech he made after he won Istanbul's election in 2019. 

The victory of the politician in March 2019 -- when he was elected mayor of the country's largest city -- was a significant blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AK, which had held control of Istanbul for more than two decades.

In the aftermath of the historic win, Erdogan's party asked to annul the election results, saying there had been irregularities in the process. The election was instead repeated a few months later, with the same result -- Imagoglu's victory.

On 4 November 2019, Imagoglu told journalists that cancelling legitimate elections was "foolishness". This comment is what justified Wednesday's sentence against the politician. 

Imamoglu has repeatedly denied that his comments were meant to insult Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council, saying that his words were instead a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu calling him a "fool".

The verdict has been criticised by opposition parties, who have questioned the independence of Turkey's courts under Erdogan's authoritarian rule and suggested that Imagoglu's sentence was an attempt at quashing a key opponent to the Turkish president ahead of crucial elections next year.

Leaders and representatives of the six opposition parties in the country were taking part in Thursday's protests in Istanbul.

The sentence was also condemned by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which described the verdict as "a travesty of justice and an attack on the democratic process" as well as an "unjustified and politically calculated assault on Turkey's political opposition". 

The NGO accused the Turkish government of misusing courts to "sideline or silence key opposition figures".

For the moment, Imagoglu remains in office as a higher court reviews his case. His plan is to appeal the verdict, which he said was a punishment for his success.

"Sometimes in our country, no success goes unpunished," he said during a ceremony to open a care centre for older adults in Istanbul. "I, therefore, regard this meaningless and illegal punishment given to me as a reward for my success."

Another controversial court order

On Wednesday, a Turkish court ordered the arrest of a journalist for allegedly spreading "disinformation" under a new law passed two months ago that critics worry threatens free speech in the country.

The arrest of Sinan Aygul, a journalist in the Kurdish-majority Bitlis province in the country's southeast, is the first pre-trial detention under the controversial law, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years for anyone who spreads false or misleading information.

Aygul had tweeted about a 14-year-old girl who had allegedly been sexually abused by men, including police officers and soldiers.

He later retracted the tweets, saying the local governor had told him the story was untrue. Aygul even apologised for failing to confirm the story with authorities before writing about it online.

But the Turkish court said that the journalist's actions could have led to fear and panic among the public and could have disturbed peace in the country given the size of his audience, according to a court document seen by Reuters.

Aygul's lawyer Diyar Orak said the journalist's detention is unlawful.