Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the bravery of those who averted last year's failed coup that left 249 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.
He addressed hundreds of thousands of people who had converged at the entrance to the iconic July 15 Martyrs Bridge in Istanbul to mark the first anniversary of the attempted power grab.
“The place in Istanbul where most of the blood spilt was here. Did my citizens have any guns? They only had flags, as it is today. In addition to that, they had a huge weapon. That weapon was their faith.”
Erdogan said the bloodiest attacks and fiercest resistance took place in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, in an address beamed across the nation.
The president said if the Turkish parliament agreed to change the country's laws to allow capital punishment, he would not hesitate to support the move.
“When I visit the families of the martyrs and those who wounded on July 15, they are the ones who were directly affected. They say this one objects, that one is against, etc. We should ask the families first, we should listen to what they want. The other ones didn’t get hurt, that’s why they are objecting it," Erdogan said in response to criticism of his support for the death penalty.
The European Union has slammed Erdogan's calls to reinstate the death penalty, that was abolished in 2004. They warned the Turkish government that its return could bring an immediate end to Turkey’s EU accession bid.
Erdogan said that he had made the suggestion to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that coup plotters should be brought to court in uniforms similar to those worn by Guantanamo Bay inmates.
In Turkey, inmates do not wear a specific uniform and wear their own clothes.
Much of Erdogan’s speech focused on Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and how he responded to the coup attempt.
“That night he lands in Ataturk Airport. Tens of thousands of my brothers and sisters were there. Tanks were in front of the VIP lounge. He couldn’t go out, he was afraid.”
“I invited him to Yenikapi meeting. I didn’t know this story then. If I knew, I wouldn’t have invited him. He says the coup was staged. This is disrespectful and an insult against 250 martyrs. July 15th is not staged," Erdogan said.
Three weeks after the coup attempt, in August 2016, the government held a massive anti-coup rally in Istanbul’s Yenikapi Square. Opposition parties were invited to the rally that was attended by millions.
On Saturday, Erdogan hinted that Kilicdaroglu was acting in support of cleric Fethullah Gulen and his Fethullah Terrorist Organisation or FETO , who the government accuses of masterminding the coup. Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in the United States, has denied the allegations.
Earlier, speaking at a special parliamentary session in Ankara, Yildirim said: "It has been exactly one year since Turkey's darkest and longest night was transformed into a bright day since an enemy occupation turned into the people's legend.”
Turkish soldiers attempted to overthrow the government and the president using tanks, warplanes and helicopters on July 15, 2016. The coup plotters declared they had seized power on the state broadcaster, bombed the country's parliament and other key locations.
They also raided an Aegen resort where Erdogan was on vacation. But Erdogan had already left and the coup attempt was put down by civilians and security forces.
In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Turkey declared a state of emergency that has been in place ever since.
The US State Department on Saturday issued a statement praising the bravery of the Turkish people who took to the streets to "preserve the rights and freedoms of their democratic society."
"The preservation of democracy requires perseverance, tolerance, dissent and safeguards for fundamental freedoms," the agency said, warning that restrictions on those key freedoms erode "the foundations of democratic society."
"More voices, not fewer, are necessary in challenging times," the statement said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg paid homage to those who lost lives resisting the coup and said attempts to undermine democracy in any one of the allied nations was "unacceptable."
July 15 has been declared a national holiday in Turkey. Public transportation in Istanbul and Ankara is free over the weekend.
As on the night of the 2016 coup attempt, after midnight on Saturday mosques across Turkey simultaneously recited a verse, usually read before Friday prayers, to alert and invite Muslims to the streets.