Several hundred thousand protesters gathered yesterday in Istanbul, Turkey, joining thousands completing a 280-mile, 25-day march from Ankara in what is being called the largest protest gathering against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since 2013. Erdoğan, who has been warmly embraced by President Donald Trump, is widely seen as an authoritarian strongman who has radically diminished the pillars of democracy in his own country.
Led by opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the Republican People’s Party, the march and rally drew supporters from across Turkey. Undaunted by the 104-degree heat and the very real possibility of a violent response from the government, protesters gathered in the Maltepe parade ground holding signs that read “adalet” (“justice” in Turkish).
They were protesting the Erdoğan government’s brutal crackdown on free press, the independent judiciary, and freedom of expression since the attempted anti-government coup that took place almost exactly one year ago. The immediate impetus for the march was the recent arrest and sentencing of Enis Berberoğlu, an opposition parliamentarian who was convicted on spy charges after he allegedly shared a video with the press showing official Turkish vehicles purportedly transporting weapons to Syria.
“We will bring down the wall of fear,” Kılıçdaroğlu told those gathered. “This last day of our walk for justice is a new beginning, a new first step.”
It was a dramatic show of bravery. Only two weeks ago, Turkish police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who attempted to stage an LGBTQ Pride parade in defiance of a government-issued ruling banning the march. Activists said 41 people were detained in the aftermath of the rally.
Calling yesterday’s rally a beginning rather than an end, Kılıçdaroğlu vowed that July 9 would henceforth be seen as a turning point in Turkish history. “This is a rebirth for us, for our country and our children,” he said. “We will revolt against injustice.”
“We walked for the non-existent justice,” he told the crowd. “We walked for the rights of the oppressed, for the imprisoned lawmakers, the jailed journalists. ... We walked for the academics who were thrown out of universities.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was also in Istanbul on Sunday receiving an honor at an oil industry conference. While there, he praised the bravery of Turkish men and women, honoring their courage. But Tillerson was referring not to the protesters who’d made the long walk between Turkish cities, but instead to those who stood up to last year’s attempted coup.
“We're all here in Istanbul at a momentous time,” Tillerson said yesterday. “Nearly a year ago, the Turkish people — brave men and women — stood up against coup plotters and defended their democracy.”
Tillerson apparently made no public mention of the day’s protests, or of the increasingly authoritarian environment that has arisen in Turkey since the coup was thwarted.
Under Erdoğan, Turkey has become increasingly inhospitable to dissent
Symbols of the opposition party were notably absent from the demonstration. Protest organizers were extremely careful not to be overtly political, fearing a misstep could lead to the rally’s immediate shutdown or to violence by Turkish security forces under the rules of the state of emergency imposed on the country since last summer.
Under the state of emergency, Erdoğan’s government has dismissed some 100,000 civil servants, shut down more than 170 news organizations, shuttered some 1,500 NGOs, and arrested some 50,000 purported to have some connection to the coup. Eighty-one journalists have been jailed.
“This is not an anti-government protest,” said Samet Akten, a spokesperson for the march, in a statement reprinted by the New York Times. “It is important to recognize the exceptionally peaceful nature of this process as well as its very specific goal. We will be expressing a collective, nonpartisan desire for an independent and fair judicial system, which has lately been lacking in Turkey.”
In April of this year, Erdoğan organized a referendum to give himself even greater control over the state and judiciary. “It represents a remarkable aggrandizement of Erdoğan’s personal power and quite possibly a death blow to vital checks and balances in the country,” Howard Eissenstat, an expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told the New York Times upon the referendum’s passage. “Judicial independence was already shockingly weak before the referendum; the new system makes that worse.”
Turkish police and security forces did not stop w yesterday’s protests. But that doesn’t mean Erdoğan has gotten softer. In just the past two weeks, two leaders of Amnesty International have been detained, including Idil Eser, the director of Amnesty in Turkey. She stands accused of having a connection to last year’s July 15 coup, and of being a member of an “armed terrorist organization.”
“[T]he accusations would be laughable were the situation in Turkey not so extremely grave for anyone who dares to criticize the government,” Amnesty International said in a statement on July 8. The group demanded Eser’s immediate release, as well as that of Taner Kılıç, chair of Amnesty in Turkey, who was arrested a month ago.
Attendees of Sunday’s march told journalists they feared repercussions for those who led the protest. “I am one of their targets,” Mahmut Tanal, an opposition leader in parliament, told the New York Times.
But he struck a resolute position. “If they try and arrest me,” he said, “I will welcome them.”