Erdogan vows harsh measures against 'traitors' during mass rally

Sunday, July 16, 2017

ISTANBUL/ANKARA - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Saturday to carry out harsh measures against alleged putschists, stressing he would seek to bring back the death penalty, during a mass rally on a bridge in Istanbul attended by hundreds of thousands.

"Those traitors will always be remembered with hatred," Erdogan said, adding that Turkey "never hesitates to crush the heads of those who betray."

He also pledged to "rip off the heads of these traitors first," referring to terrorists, in the speech, which was laden with Islamic references and strong criticism of the opposition.

Erdogan added that prisoners arrested in connection with the coup would now wear a "Guantanamo"-style uniform to court, referring to the controversial US prison camp in Cuba.

The speech on the Bosporus Bridge, which was renamed Martyr's Bridge last year and was one of the main battlegrounds of the 2016 coup, took place in front of thousands of people waving Turkish flags.

Erdogan also took part in late-night commemorations in Ankara for those who died in the attempted coup, while opposition parliamentarians boycotted the event.

Earlier on Saturday in the capital, Turkey's main opposition party leader decried the government's failure to prevent last year's coup attempt and the ongoing crackdown on alleged coup supporters during a special session of parliament marking one year since the failed putsch.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the centre-left People's Republican Party (CHP), took a swipe at the country's leadership by demanding that the officials who allowed the coup plotters to infiltrate "the most sensitive positions of the state" be held accountable.

The government has blamed last year's July 15 coup on US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, a one-time ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Gulen's followers were allegedly able to infiltrate the state bureaucracy and military to carry out the coup attempt, but Gulen has denied all involvement.

Many questions remain about the coup attempt, including understanding who exactly was behind it and when the government became aware of the plot. Some of the top army officials accused of being plotters deny any links to Gulen.

Speaking with Erdogan sitting in the gallery, Kilicdaroglu called for a strengthening of democracy and was critical of what he described as a "permanent" state of emergency, allowing the government to rule by decree.

"Justice has been destroyed," he said.

The CHP leader last week held a rally with hundreds of thousands of supporters, demanding a return to the rule of law. The protest concluded his 400-kilometre "Justice March" from Ankara to Istanbul.

Since the night of the coup, more than 50,000 people have landed in jail on suspicion of links to Gulen, and the government has purged about 149,000 people from the civil service and the military using emergency decrees.

The purges have also extended beyond alleged Gulenists, with dozens of journalists and human rights activists, including the head of Amnesty International's local branch, sent to jail. Pro-Kurdish members of parliament have also been arrested.

The events on the night of the abortive coup left hundreds of people dead, including civilians who took to the streets to confront the putschists.

At Erdogan's speech in Istanbul, Omar, a 50-year-old government supporter, said: "All those jailed or purged deserved it." He denied anyone innocent was caught up in the sweeping moves.

"We want all the slain to be avenged," said Omar, whose friend was killed on the night of the coup attempt. "I wish we had death penalty in place, it should definitely be reinstated."

"We are more united than ever, that's what matters really," said Erol, another bridge march participant.

Just after midnight, early Sunday morning, all mosques across Turkey – estimated to number around 90,000 – simultaneously called out prayers in memory of the events on the night of the failed putsch, when preachers urged citizens to take to the streets.

Meanwhile, the United States issued a statement commending the "bravery" of the ordinary citizens who took to the streets on the night of the coup attempt, but also issued a veiled criticism of the situation in Turkey.

"Their actions continue to remind us that the preservation of democracy requires perseverance, tolerance, dissent, and safeguards for fundamental freedoms. Persistent curbs on those fundamental freedoms erode the foundations of democratic society," a statement from the US State Department read.

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