ISTANBUL • Turkey's opposition leader stepped up his challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday by addressing a mass rally at the end of an almost one month-long "justice" march from Ankara to Istanbul.
Mr Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the secular Republican People's Party (CHP), launched an unprecedented 450km trek on June 15 in Ankara in protest against the arrest of one of his MPs.
Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in Istanbul at the culmination of the biggest protest against a government crackdown following last July's failed military coup. Waving Turkish flags and banners emblazoned with the word "Justice" in red and white, they gathered to listen to Mr Kilicdaroglu.
Supporters compared the trek with Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi's famous Salt March of 1930 but the government has dismissed it as a bothersome stunt.
Carrying a simple insignia emblazoned with the word "Justice" and without any party slogans, Mr Kilicdaroglu initiated the march after his party's lawmaker Enis Berberoglu, a former journalist, was sentenced to 25 years' jail on charges of leaking classified information to a newspaper.
"Why do I walk? This 450km march has one goal: Justice," said the CHP leader, who reached Istanbul last Friday and was joined by tens of thousands forming a vast file along the road despite blistering heat.
"They ask 'Can we seek justice on the road?' Yes we can. If there are grave injustices and illegalities in your country and if your country's courts are incapable of delivering justice, you will stand up and hit the road," he said.
"That's what I am doing now. I have one motto: Justice."
About 50,000 people have been arrested under Turkey's state of emergency, imposed after last July's failed coup, and a further 100,000 have lost their jobs, including teachers, judges, soldiers and police officers.
In the latest crackdown, Turkish police last Wednesday detained Amnesty International's Turkey director and other activists on charges of membership in a terror group, which sparked an uproar among human rights advocates.
Yesterday's rally is expected to be one of the biggest opposition protests seen in Istanbul since the mass 2013 demonstrations against Mr Erdogan's rule.
The opposition chief rested during the nights in a caravan throughout his journey, and witnesses said the 69-year-old was walking quite fast.
"He is surprisingly vigorous," his party's Istanbul lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu told Agence France- Presse. Commenting on his eating habits, he said Mr Kilicdaroglu "never has heavy meals".
The government has regarded the justice march with disdain.
Mr Erdogan has accused Mr Kilicdaroglu's party of siding with terrorism while Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last Friday: "(The march) has started to become boring. This should come to an end after the rally." The authorities, however, have not impeded the walk's progress, with police providing security every day.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS