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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Huge crowd rallies in Istanbul against Turkey's post-coup crackdown

The rally was led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), who set off from the capital in mid-June to protest the jailing of party member Enis Berberoglu for 25 years on spying charges

Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, raise their hands as they gather for a rally in Maltepe, Istanbul on July 9, 2017, celebrating the end of Mr Kilicdaroglu's 425-kilometre 'March for Justice' from Ankara to Istanbul. Lefteris Pitarakis / AP Photo
Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, raise their hands as they gather for a rally in Maltepe, Istanbul on July 9, 2017, celebrating the end of Mr Kilicdaroglu's 425-kilometre 'March for Justice' from Ankara to Istanbul. Lefteris Pitarakis / AP Photo

ISTANBUL // Tens of thousands of Turkish opposition supporters massed in Istanbul on Sunday to mark the end of a nearly month-long march protesting alleged injustices under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In a rare challenge to the country's powerful leader, a sea of people filled the vast shoreside square in Maltepe on the Asian side of Istanbul for the rally, marking the culmination of a 450-kilometre "justice march" from Ankara to Istanbul by Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The rally was by far the biggest by the opposition seen in Istanbul since the mass May-June 2013 demonstrations against Mr Erdogan's rule. Those protests were sparked by the planned redevelopment of the city's Gezi Park.

Mr Kilicdaroglu began the 25-day trek to protest the arrest of one of his MPs and it rapidly grew into a major march protesting alleged injustice under the state of emergency imposed following last year's failed coup.

"Nobody should think this march is the last one. It's the first step!" Mr Kilicdaroglu told the crowds who roared back with the cry: "Justice!"

"Everyone should know very well that July 9 is a new step, a new history … a new birth," he added.

Only Mr Erdogan himself is usually capable of mobilising such crowds, and in the past has held mass meetings for supporters in the Maltepe meeting area.

The government had dismissed the march as a bothersome stunt, with a riled Mr Erdogan accusing Mr Kilicdaroglu of siding with "terrorists" and the plotters of the July 15 failed coup.

But Turkish security forces did nothing to impede the march's progress and 15,000 police officers were deployed to ensure safety at the rally.

CHP officials said numbers at the rally could have been as high as over two million but this could not be immediately confirmed.

Supporters had compared the trek of the slightly built, mustachioed 69-year-old with Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi's famous Salt March of 1930.

The CHP leader reached the outskirts of Istanbul on Friday and was joined by tens of thousands forming a vast file along the road despite blistering heat.

Mr Kilicdaroglu had launched the march from Ankara after his party's MP Enis Berberoglu, a former journalist, was sentenced to 25 years in jail on charges of leaking classified information to a newspaper.

The rally ground is near Berberoglu's prison in the Istanbul district of Maltepe.

Mr Kilicdaroglu had said he wanted no CHP insignia at the rally, only "Justice" slogans and pictures of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The opposition chief dressed modestly on every day of the march in a white shirt, dark trousers, with a hat to protect him from the sun. He rested at night in a caravan.

At the rally the huge stage, flanked by pictures of Ataturk and the Turkish flag, had only a single word printed on its canopy — "Adalet" (Justice) - in giant letters.

About 50,000 people have been arrested under Turkey's state of emergency imposed after last July's failed coup and another 100,000 have lost their jobs, including teachers, judges, soldiers and police officers.

"We marched for justice, we marched for the rights of the oppressed. We marched for the MPs in jail. We marched for the arrested journalists. We marched for the university academics dismissed from their jobs," said Mr Kilicdaroglu.

"We marched because the judiciary is under a political monopoly."

Mr Kilicdaroglu has strongly condemned the failed coup bid — blamed on US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who denies the charges - but has been bitterly critical of the scope of the state of emergency.

In the latest crackdown, Turkish police on Wednesday last week detained Amnesty International's Turkey director and other activists on charges of membership in a terror group, sparking a new uproar among rights advocates.

Mr Kilicdaroglu said he was against both a "one man regime" and Gulen.

Also last week, Turkish police detained six suspected ISIL members, who were allegedly planning a bomb attack on the march. But the CHP said it was a routine operation, and not related to the justice march.

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