WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands of people massed in Istanbul Sunday to protest Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on critics of his government in the wake of last year's failed military coup.
The demonstrators chanted "Rights, Law, Justice" in support of the main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who was completing a 450-kilometer walk from the capital Ankara after a lawmaker from his party was imprisoned in June.
It was the biggest protest in several years against Erdogan, whose government has arrested more than 50,000 people and dismissed at least 100,000 civil servants he has characterized as supporters of the aborted coup. Turkey claims the coup was led by a cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States for nearly two decades. Gulen denies any involvement.
The 68-year-old Kilicdaroglu's 25-day march at first drew modest support, about 1,000 people who walked alongside him. But the crowds swelled in recent days as he neared Istanbul.
Kilicdaroglu, the head of the secularist Republican People's Party, said that his march "cast off a shirt of fear" of Erdogan's rule. "If only there was no need for this march and there was democracy, media freedoms, if civic society groups could freely express their opinions."
Erdogan criticized Kilicdaroglu when he embarked on the march, saying justice should be sought in parliament, not on the streets.
The Turkish opposition says that Erdogan's government has been moving toward authoritarianism, while the Turkish leader says that the crackdown on rights is necessary to thwart security threats to the ruling government.