People stand under a collection of Turkish national flags as they gather on the recently renamed July 15 Martyrs Bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul. (Yasin Akgul / AFP/Getty Images)
Millions of people gathered across Turkey in observance of one year since civilians poured into the streets and confronted rebel soldiers, thwarting what would have been the country’s fourth military coup.
At least 250 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded the night of July 15, 2016, when a faction of the military deployed fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks, and other heavy weapons against the government.
The July 15, 2016, Saga, as the Turkish government has branded the event, marked a turning point in a country prone to military coups. The military seized power in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.
Late Saturday night, mosques across Turkey broadcast funeral prayers for the dead and public buses and other transportation were free all day to help people attend memorial rallies.
Hundreds of thousands marched over a bridge across the Bosporus in Istanbul, carrying Turkish flags and portraits of the scores of civilians killed. The bridge, now named July 15 Martyr’s Bridge, was just one site of a long night of pitched battles between soldiers and mostly unarmed civilians backing lightly armed police.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who barely escaped an assault by three rebel commando units the night of the attempted coup, addressed the crowd and unveiled a monument commemorating the civilians killed, a few kilometers from his home near the bridge’s entrance.
The night of the coup attempt, thousands of supporters had camped out at Erdogan’s home as a defensive measure officials dubbed a “democracy watch.” One year later, Erdogan asked the crowd to return to the locations where they had confronted soldiers that night.
“That day the traitors used heavy weapons against the nation, but the people who came, just like today, only had their flags and their faith,” Erdogan told the crowd before reciting verses from the Koran praising martyrs as being granted eternal life. “Do you know what God has promised the martyrs? For those who fight in the way of God, or in the way of their nation, he has promised them paradise.”
Erdogan promised to “decapitate the traitors,” adding that “not one of them will be left in this country without getting their punishment.”
Turkey has been under a state of emergency since last July 20, and officials have said they intend to keep it in place as long as it takes to track and prosecute those with alleged connections to Fethullah Gulen, the cleric who is blamed for the coup attempt and who resides in Pennsylvania.
Ankara has called for Gulen’s extradition for his role in the coup attempt. On Saturday, effigies of Gulen, some with a rope around the neck, were carried by some of those attending the memorials.
On Thursday, the Ministry of Justice announced a total of 169,013 people had faced legal proceedings related to the coup attempt, and 50,510 were currently under arrest. Among those jailed are more than 150 journalists, 169 generals, 8,815 police department members, 24 governors, 73 deputy governors, 116 district governors and 2,413 judiciary members.
On Friday evening, a presidential decree announced the dismissal of 7,348 public-sector workers from five ministries, the police, and other government offices, adding to the more than 150,000 already purged since the coup attempt. Those dismissed are barred from leaving the country and holding any government job in the future. About 34,000 public employees have been reinstated, and the government has announced an inquiry commission will begin hearing appeals from those dismissed starting July 17.
Only a fraction of those arrested for their role in the attempted coup have been brought to trial, including a case against 221 top military officials for attempting to overthrow the government force and “attempting to assassinate the president.” They also face charges for those hundreds of civilians killed.
Erdogan pledged to be tough on the accused coup plotters, stating they will be forced to wear single-colored uniforms during their court hearings “just like in Guantanamo.”
The purges fractured a once-united political landscape, with Turkey’s two largest opposition parties, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) largely boycotting memorials on Saturday.
Erdogan told those gathered in Istanbul he regretted inviting the head of the CHP to a democracy rally in Istanbul in August 2016, a meeting that had symbolized a united civilian front.
Twelve HDP lawmakers, including its top leadership, are behind bars facing decades of prison time on terrorism charges. Last month, a CHP lawmaker was sentenced to 25 years in prison for allegedly passing information to journalists that indicated Turkish intelligence was sending weapons to jihadist rebels in Syria.
July 9, hundreds of thousands gathered in Istanbul to support a call by the CHP’s head, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, for a popular movement that calls for an independent judiciary. It was a rare protest against the government, which has imposed a blanket ban on the gatherings under the state of emergency.
On Saturday, Kilicdaroglu’s party said it would not attend a late-night parliament session meant to commemorate the moment rebel fighter jets bombed the building. Kilicdaroglu has dubbed July 20, the day a national state of emergency was first imposed, a “civilian coup.”
Farooq is a special correspondent.