Thousands of Turks protested the conviction and political ban of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu on Thursday, voicing criticism of the government ahead of elections next year set to be one of President Tayyip Erdogan's biggest political challenges.
A possible rival to Erdogan
A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Imamoglu, a popular rival to Erdogan, to two years and seven months in prison, which like the ban must be confirmed by an appeals court. The verdict drew wide criticism at home and abroad as an abuse of democracy.
As patriotic music rang out, the crowd waved Turkish flags in front of the Istanbul municipality building in the city of 16 million people. A large portrait banner of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was hung from the building.
"Rights, law, justice... The day will come when the AKP is called to account," the crowd chanted as the rally began, referring to Erdogan's ruling AK Party.
"The government is afraid and that's why there was such a verdict. Nobody can stop this nation," said Filiz Kumbasar, 56, who came from the town of Duzce some 200 km (125 miles) away for the rally.
Tried for a speech made in 2019
Imamoglu was convicted for insulting public officials in a speech he made after he won Istanbul's election in 2019. Critics say Turkish courts bend to Erdogan's will. The government says the judiciary is independent.
Imamoglu said his jail sentence punished his success.
"Sometimes in our country, no success goes unpunished," he said. "I see this meaningless and illegal punishment imposed on me as a reward for my success."
Presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held by June may be the biggest political challenge yet for Erdogan after two decades in power, as Turks cope with rising costs of living after a currency collapse and inflation surge.
The six-party opposition alliance formed against Erdogan, led by Imamoglu's Republican People's Party (CHP), has yet to agree their presidential candidate. Imamoglu has been mooted as a possible challenger and polls suggest he would defeat Erdogan.
"Sometimes in our country, no success goes unpunished."Ekrem Imamoglu
Imamoglu was tried over a speech in which he said those who annulled the initial 2019 vote - in which he narrowly defeated a candidate from Erdogan's AK Party - were "fools". Imamoglu says his remark was a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu for using the same language against him.