(Istanbul, December 14, 2022) – The conviction of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and the ban on him holding elected political office imposed on the basis of a comment to the media should be seen for the violation of rights that it is and as an unjustified and politically calculated assault on Turkey’s political opposition in the run up to 2023 elections, Human Rights Watch said today.
The decision by an Istanbul court violates Mayor İmamoğlu’s rights to free speech and political association and interferes with the right of millions of voters in Istanbul to elect a mayor of their choosing as their political representative.
“The verdict against Ekrem İmamoğlu is a travesty of justice and an attack on the democratic process, demonstrating that as the 2023 elections approach the government is prepared to misuse courts to sideline or silence key opposition figures,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “The verdict violates not only İmamoğlu’s rights but also denies Istanbul’s voters their rights when it deprives them of their chosen representative.”
The court sentenced İmamoğlu to 2 years, 7 months, and 15 days in prison for saying to the media on November 4, 2019, “those who cancelled the March 31 [2019 Istanbul mayoral] election are fools.” İmamoğlu won both that election and the rerun of it on June 23, 2019, which had been requested by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. The court ruled that his comment to the media months later was an insult to the Higher Electoral Board, which had controversially issued the decision to cancel the first election. The court also banned him from elected political office and other activities for the duration of the prison sentence he may serve if the conviction is upheld at appeal. İmamoğlu’s lawyers said they will immediately appeal the conviction and the ban.
İmamoğlu narrowly won the majority of the votes to become Istanbul mayor in the March 31, 2019 municipal elections. This was the first time President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s and his Justice and Development Party, and predecessor Welfare Party, had lost control of the city since 1994, when Erdogan was elected Istanbul mayor. On May 6, 2019, Turkey’s Higher Electoral Board controversially cancelled the election result in response to the ruling party’s allegations of irregularities. The election was rerun on June 23, 2019 and İmamoğlu went on to win in a landslide victory, putting him over 800,000 votes ahead of the government’s candidate. Since then, President Erdoğan and his party officials have frequently targeted İmamoğlu in their speeches.
İmamoğlu made the comment to the media for which he has been prosecuted in Istanbul on November 4, 2019. A journalist had asked him to respond to a comment by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu criticizing İmamoğlu where Soylu had said: “I am saying this to the fool going and complaining about Turkey to the European Parliament. This nation will make you pay the price…”
In fact, Soylu was referring to a speech İmamoğlu gave not to the European Parliament but at a session of the Council of Europe Local and Regional Authorities on October 30, 2019, in which he had criticized the government’s decision to cancel the election. In response to Soylu calling him a “fool,” İmamoğlu answered, “It is those who cancelled the March 31 elections who are the fools.” Neither of the politicians named each other in their comments, nor did İmamoğlu refer to the Higher Electoral Board.
The investigation against İmamoğlu for his comment came after the Higher Electoral Board notified the Istanbul Anatolia Chief Prosecutor’s Office, which opened an investigation into İmamoğlu on the charge of “Publicly insulting state officials working on boards in relation to their duties” under Turkish Penal Code Articles 125/2-1 and 125/3a, 125/4 and 125/5. It is notable that no member of the Higher Electoral Board sought to be a complainant in the case, Human Rights Watch said.
Those who are convicted and sentenced to prison for intentional crimes can face loss of the right to vote or to hold elected political office as well as other rights, under provisions in Article 53 of the Turkish Penal Code. If his conviction is upheld, İmamoğlu could become the second leading politician from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to lose the right to hold elected office for the duration of the time served in prison. In May, Turkey’s Court of Cassation upheld the conviction of Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Istanbul Republian People’s Party chair. Kaftancıoğlu was banned from holding elected political office.