By Carlotta Gall for The New York Times
ISTANBUL — Hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out for a massive rally in Istanbul on Sunday evening, cheering the leader of the opposition as he concluded his three-week March for Justice and threw down a challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to institute changes or face a “revolt against injustice.”
“Nobody should think this march has ended; this march is a beginning,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, known as C.H.P., said as he walked onto a stage to rippling cheers. “This is a rebirth for us, for our country and our children. We will revolt against injustice.”
The march, organized by politicians from Turkey’s largest opposition party to protest the government crackdown against thousands of its opponents, drew tens of thousands of people, who trekked, beginning on June 15, from the capital, Ankara, to Turkey’s first city, Istanbul, which is about 250 miles to the northwest.
Over a million people attended the rally on Sunday evening, the police told C.H.P. organizers, as youth groups and other opposition parties joined in. Marchers wearing T-shirts and carrying signs with the single word “adalet,” or justice, called for the return of an independent judiciary and swift and fair justice for the tens of thousands of people arrested or suspended from their jobs since Turkey’s failed coup last year.
Despite their differences, however, the government and opposition leaders appeared to be taking great pains to prevent a major confrontation as the march reached its culmination. The rally on Sunday could have easily been prohibited under the state of emergency that has been in force since the coup attempt. Large numbers of police officers escorted the marchers but did not interfere.
In a symbolic gesture, but also perhaps in an effort to manage the crowds, Mr. Kilicdaroglu walked the last two miles to the rally on his own. A former civil servant, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, 69, has captured the imagination of many supporters with his mild manner and his insistence on a peaceful march, in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi.
“This is not an anti-government protest,” Samet Akten, communications director for the march, said in a statement on Sunday. “It is important to recognize the exceptionally peaceful nature of this process as well as its very specific goal. We will be expressing a collective, nonpartisan desire for an independent and fair judicial system, which has lately been lacking in Turkey.”
Though the government allowed the march and rally to proceed despite security concerns and its evident criticism of Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian leadership, it is the largest sign of opposition since the failed coup last July, which resulted in the deaths of 249 people.
Politicians, including members of the C.H.P., rallied behind the president after the coup attempt, but differences over the scale of his crackdown have since emerged. Mr. Erdogan has ordered the arrests of 50,000 people accused of links to the coup plotters, and organized a referendum that granted him greater powers, including over the judiciary.
In an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit last week, Mr. Erdogan insisted that the judiciary in Turkey was independent and defended the widespread arrests, saying many of those detained, including journalists, face terrorism charges.
“If it turns out that they are innocent, the judiciary will release them,” he said. “But if they are guilty, the judiciary will rule accordingly.”
Sunday’s rally passed without incident. Mr. Kilicdaroglu commended his supporters for completing the march peacefully and thanked the security forces for their management of the crowds.
But he was forthright in his accusations against Mr. Erdogan’s government, calling on him to immediately lift the state of emergency and release two hunger strikers who are seriously ill. He also urged judges to resist government pressure or resign. “I am telling him directly from here, ‘Your justice will not crush us,’” he said.
He presented a 10-point statement demanding that changes in the constitution be reversed, that last year’s coup attempt be fully investigated and that journalists, members of Parliament and army privates be released and civil servants reinstated.
“Justice is a right, we want our right back,” he said. “We millions here demand a new social contract.”
Dursun Cicek, a C.H.P. member of Parliament and a former political prisoner, said the rally marked the opening of a campaign by opposition parties to challenge Mr. Erdogan’s government ahead of the presidential election in 2019. “If they change, then O.K.,” he said. “But if they don’t change, we will gain power — in a democratic way.”
Mr. Erdogan, who was at the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, last week, and met with Rex W. Tillerson, the United States secretary of state, in Ankara on Sunday, did not react to Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s challenge.
Supporters of Mr. Erdogan were largely absent from the rally. Some workers watched in silence. Drivers complained that roads were sealed off for the march.
“God sees everything,” one driver said.
Supporters of the C.H.P. said they welcomed the call for action. “I am really happy that finally we have heard this is the beginning, and from the street,” Ogun Gidisoglu said. Referring to Mr. Kilicdaroglu, he said, “He has unleashed us.”
But some said they feared that the success of the march would lead to arrests of their leaders in coming days.
Mahmut Tanal, a senior C.H.P. member of Parliament and a member of the parliamentary human rights commission, said it was a risk they were prepared for. “I am one of their targets,” he said. “If they try and arrest me, I will welcome them.”
“Our aim was to raise awareness and serve a wake-up call for justice,” Mr. Tanal said. “I think we have succeeded.”