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Turkey’s Erdogan Offers Netanyahu a Playbook for Political Repression

The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, was sentenced last week to two years, seven months and 15 days in prison. If his appeal is denied, he will be barred from politics during his incarceration, as according to Turkish law, a person sentenced to more than two years in prison cannot serve in politics or any public position.

If Israeli minister-designate Arye Dery had been a subject of Turkish law, he wouldn’t have had to worry at all – in Turkey, a suspended prison sentence does not disqualify one from political office, which is exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are trying to pass in Jerusalem to kick off their judicial revolution.

Perhaps this is not the only section of the Turkish Penal Code that Israel’s incoming government led by Netanyahu should adopt in order to radically undermine the country’s legal system. If history is any indication, Turkey’s descent into autocracy offers important lessons for Israel.

Arye Dery in the Knesset, on Tuesday.

The offense for which Imamoglu was convicted is “insulting public servants.” The mayor won the April 2019 election with a fairly small majority of only 13,000 votes over his opponent Binali Yildirim – who had previously been prime minister and ran as a candidate for the Justice and Development party.

Yildirim’s loss was also a loss for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who announced that these elections would be a vote of confidence in his government. Yildirim and his party quickly appealed the election results, claiming fraud and miscount of the votes. Heavy pressure on the election committee had its effect, and the committee decided to annul the results of the vote and set a new election for June 2019 – but Imamoglu also won that election, this time by a huge margin of 800,000 votes.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu speaks for supporters during a protest after a Turkish court sentenced him to more than two years jail and banned him from politics ahead of next year's presidential election, on December 15, 2022.

Istanbul, where the Justice and Development Party, and before it, the religious parties, had ruled for 25 straight years, and where Erdogan himself had been mayor – was now in the hands of the opposition. For that, there could be neither forgiveness nor peace.

Imamoglu then referred to the members of the election committee who annulled the results of the first election as “stupid,” providing Erdogan the pretext he needed to try to convict him. Imamoglu’s comment is not just an insult to the president, but a real threat to his status – especially with presidential parliamentary elections only six months away. To make matter worse, Imamoglu’s victory had turned him into a national figure and a candidate with good chance against Erdogan. Such a threat would have to be stamped out.

Imamoglu, 52, to be clear, is not a leftist or a liberal. He’s a conservative, right-wing Kemalist from a religious background. He has a master’s degree in business administration from Istanbul University, and he pledged during his campaign to continue the ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages at municipal venues. But he is also a determined fighter against corruption, who put on display the dozens of cars purchased or rented by the municipality paid for with public money. He opposed the grandiose projects that Erdogan planned for Istanbul and its surroundings, arguing that they would be harmful to the environment and nature. The war between the two was never-ending, and it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the political ax fell on the mayor.

Demonstrators shout slogans and wave Turkish flags during a rally to oppose the conviction and political ban of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, in Istanbul, December 15, 2022.

This is the Turkish lesson that newly appointed Knesset speaker Yariv Levin should learn from and apply. According to a report by Turkish journalist Bris Terkogly, Judge Huseyin Zengin appointed to hear Imamoglu’s case told a few of his colleagues back in June that he was being pressured to hand down a lengthy sentence to the accused – specifically exceeding two years in an effort to ban him from further participation in politics.

“I thought such a sentence was exaggerated,” Zengin said. “After I examined similar precedents I believe that a minimal sentence should be imposed and the announcement of the ruling postponed,” he added. As a result, mid-case, Zengin was transferred to a court in a different city and was replaced by Judge Mehdi Mahallell, who sentenced Imamoglu.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu (C-R) joins supporters during a protest in Istanbul after a Turkish court sentenced him to more than two years jail and banned him from politics ahead of next year's presidential election, on December 15, 2022.

Much like in Israel, in Turkey a Judicial Appointment Committee operates as part of the Supreme council for the Appointment of Judges and Prosecutors. This council was dissolved and rebuilt in 2017 alongside other amendments to the constitution. Under its new iteration it has 13 members – seven of whom are appointed by the parliament from a list of sitting judges and prosecutors and four who are directly appointed by the president, deputy justice minister, and justice minister (who also heads the council). Thus, the president, and the parliament in his hands, entirely controls court rulings.

After the failure of the attempted military coup in July 2016, nearly 4,000 judges and prosecutors were dismissed or transferred, and some 400 were arrested. To fill in the ranks, young judges, many of whom had less than three years of experience, were appointed.

“The fear of prosecution is paralyzing the judiciary and academia,” one judge told The New York Times in an interview about three years ago. Since then, the fear has only mounted. Last week Erdogan declared that Imamoglu’s sentence is not final and is subject to appeal.

“The court will correct any mistake made by the court that sentenced him, if such a mistake was made,” he said. But it seems that the appeals court, too, was appointed by a government that cannot rest until its bitter opponent is out of the way. Everything according to law, of course.

Source : Haaretz