(CNSNews.com) – Opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a huge rally in Istanbul Sunday evening, the culmination of a 280-mile “justice march” by the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), aimed at highlighting the Islamist government’s crackdown on its critics since the failed coup attempt almost a year ago.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told the hundreds of thousands of people gathered – one European Parliament observer estimated attendance of two million – that the conclusion of his march from Ankara marked not an end, but the beginning of a campaign to break down “the walls of fear.”
“We walked for academics dismissed from universities,” Turkish media outlets quoted Kilicdaroglu as telling the gathering. “We marched for those dismissed from their public duties, for child workers, for villagers, for jailed and lynched soldiers.”
“We walked for justice that we lack,” he said. “ We walked for the right of the oppressed, the jailed deputies and journalists.”
Some 50,000 people have been arrested in Erdogan’s crackdown, and around 150,000 judges, soldiers, teachers and others have lost their jobs.
Kilicdaroglu, whose party led the opposition to a controversial April referendum that handed far-reaching new powers to an already-authoritarian Erdogan, launched the protest after a CHP member of parliament, Enis Berberoglu, was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment last month for revealing state secrets.
Berberoglu, a former newspaper editor, was accused of passing to a newspaper imagery allegedly showing Turkish intelligence agency vehicles delivering weapons to Islamist rebels in Syria in 2015.
As has become standard practice, Erdogan blamed the Berberoglu incident on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric and erstwhile ally who lives in Pennsylvania and is also accused by the Turkish state of responsibility for last July’s abortive coup bid.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup bid, and U.S. authorities have resisted Ankara’s demands for his extradition.
Erdogan has similarly sought to link the CHP leader’s protest march to the Gulen movement and his other main foe – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed armed group that has waged a separatist struggle in south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades.
In his speech Sunday, Kilicdaroglu took pains to distance his campaign from “terrorists” and from Gulen, but also took a swipe at Erdogan’s “one-man regime.”
“We walked because we are against a one-man regime and FETO,” he said. “We walked because we are against terrorist organizations and because of the fact that the judiciary has been taken under the orders of politics.”
FETO stands for the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization, the Turkish state’s preferred name for Gulen’s movement.
(For the same reason, Kilicdaroglu also insisted that the only flags and banners permitted at the rally were Turkey’s national flag and banners with the word “Justice” or images of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.)
Erdogan and his AK (Justice and Development Party) party repeatedly invoke the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in justifying the security clampdown on dissent and the constitutional changes approved in the April referendum.
But Kilicdaroglu said for many Turks July 2016 has a different meaning that it does for Erdogan’s “palace,” he said, and spoke instead of the “July 20 civil coup” – a reference to the date on which the government declared a state of emergency, five days after the coup bid.
Originally declared for three months, the emergency has been extended every three months since.
In a list of demands put to the government, the CHP called among other things for an end to the emergency, for parliament to be given back its authority, a restoration of judicial independence, and the release of jailed lawmakers and journalists.
For the last half mile or so of the march Sunday, Kilicdaroglu walked alone with a banner bearing the word “justice.” Istanbul city authorities provided heavy security and the mass event went off without mishap.
Earlier, the U.S. Consulate had advised citizens that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn violent, and that large political rallies have been targeted by terrorists in the past.
Erdogan held an unscheduled meeting with President Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on Saturday.