Hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul on Sunday in the largest opposition rally in years, in a serious rebuke to the government’s large-scale crackdown on opponents since last year’s attempted coup.
The rally in the Maltepe parade ground was the final stop in a 280-mile (450km) march from the capital, Ankara, led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s party – the main opposition party – and appeared to draw citizens from across the political spectrum to protest against what they see as widespread injustice and oppression by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“We demand justice,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in a speech minutes after reaching the end of his march. “We demand justice not only for those who gathered here, not only those who support us, but for everyone.”
“Justice is the foundation of the state,” he added. “In present-day Turkey the foundation of the state is at risk.”
The rally is by far the biggest by the opposition seen in Istanbul since the mass May-June 2013 demonstrations against Erdoğan’s rule, sparked by the planned redevelopment of Gezi Park in the city. Istanbul governor Vasip Şahin said 15,000 police officers were providing security at the post-march rally on Sunday.
The “justice march” drew widespread support for its calls for an end to arbitrary arrests and dismissals in the aftermath of the coup. Tens of thousands of people have been detained or fired from jobs in the civil service, academia and media over alleged connections to Fethullah Gülen, an exiled preacher whose movement is widely believed to have orchestrated last year’s putsch.
But the crackdown has gone beyond the alleged perpetrators to target dissidents of all stripes including senior opposition lawmakers. Rights activists have also been arrested, including two top officials at Amnesty International, and Ankara has become the world’s largest jailer of journalists.
Nearly a quarter of the Turkish judiciary has been dismissed or detained in what legal experts say is a systematic effort to reshape the country’s justice system. The president’s victory in a recent referendum that vastly expanded his power will allow him and a parliament controlled by his party to appoint most of the country’s top judges.
“I came from Urfa for justice,” said one attendee at the rally. “For all the oppressed, for workers, for my village, for my neighbourhood.”
Kılıçdaroğlu used his speech to unveil what his aides described as a “justice manifesto” that called for an end to the state of emergency that has been in place since July 2016, protecting the independence of the judiciary, reinstating dissidents who have been unfairly fired from their jobs, and ending the practice of imprisoning journalists.
“We will bring down the wall of fear,” he said. “This last day of our walk for justice is a new beginning, a new first step.”
The rally comes less than a week before the anniversary of the coup attempt, in which 249 people died and 1,400 were wounded, and which was defeated after widespread popular resistance.
The government has planned a series of week-long events including a late-night address by the president to the Grand National Assembly to mark the moment when the parliament was bombed by the coup plotters.
Ordinary citizens, sacked public employees and high-profile figures have joined Kılıçdaroğlu on his march. Novelist Aslı Erdoğan and leading Kurdish politician Ahmet Türk, both released from jail pending trial on various terror-related charges, as well as Yonca Şik, the wife of a prominent journalist currently in prison, were just a few.
The march has drawn the ire of government officials and proxies, who have accused the protesters of supporting terrorism and the coup plotters. The atmosphere at the rally was celebratory and diverse, including leftists, secularists and even religious conservatives.
“This is not about religion for us, but about justice for all of us and for our grandchildren, for progress, for journalists, for our headscarves,” said Bediha, a veiled woman in her 60s who only gave her first name. “There is cruelty in this country and God willing, with this march, it will end.”
Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report