President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and opposition members came together on Saturday to mark the anniversary of last year's failed coup, a moment of unity all but overshadowed by sweeping purges that have shaken society and sharpened divisions since.

The gathering in parliament was one of the first in a string of events planned through the weekend to commemorate the night of July 15, 2016, when thousands of unarmed civilians took to the streets to defy rogue soldiers who commandeered tanks and warplanes and bombed parliament in an attempt to seize power. 

With July 15 declared a national holiday in Turkey, Erdogan and his wife later flew to Istanbul to join thousands making their way towards the Istanbul bridge over the Bosphorus where last year crowds of civilians stood defiant in front of tanks and troops halting traffic between the city's European and Asian sides.

Some 250 people died before the coup attempt was put down, a show of popular defiance that has likely ended decades of military interference in Turkish politics.

Turkey Coup Anniversary

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, centre, accompanied by his wife, Emine Erdogan, march Saturday with relatives of victims of the July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt in Turkey as they arrive close to the July 15 Martyr's Bridge. (The Associated Press)

But along with a groundswell of nationalism, the coup's greatest legacy has been a far-reaching crackdown that has 
deepened the divide between Western-facing, secular Turks and  the pious millions who back Erdogan's Islamist-rooted politics.

In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Turkey declared a state of emergency that has been in place ever since.

Some 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended from jobs in the civil service and private sector and more than 50,000 detained for alleged links to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey blames for orchestrating the failed coup, and other terror groups. Gulen has denied the allegations.

In the latest government decree published Friday evening, 7,395 more state employees were fired, including teachers, academics, military and police officers, bringing the number of dismissed to more than 110,000. The government calls the crackdown necessary to purge state institutions of those linked to Gulen, but critics say the dismissals are arbitrary and the victims' paths to recourse severely curtailed.

The U.S. 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 curbs on those key freedoms erode "the foundations of democratic society."

"More voices, not fewer, are necessary in challenging times," the statement said.

'Everyone who was there with me had come there to die. Nobody was afraid of death.' - Ismet Dogan, 20

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."

"Our people did not leave sovereignty to their enemies and took hold of democracy to the death," Prime Minister Binali 
Yildirim told parliament, as Erdogan and members of opposition parties looked on. "These monsters will surely receive the heaviest punishment they can within the law."

Critics, including rights groups and some Western governments, say Erdogan is using the state of emergency introduced after the coup to target opposition figures including rights activists, pro-Kurdish politicians and journalists.
 
The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) was represented by its deputy chairman as the party's two co-leaders are in jail, as are local members of rights group Amnesty International and nearly 160 journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Parliament 'rendered obsolete'

At the parliamentary ceremony, the head of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) decried what he said 
was the erosion of democracy following the coup.

"This parliament, which withstood bombs, has been rendered obsolete and its authority removed," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in a reference to an April referendum that Erdogan narrowly won, giving him sweeping executive powers.

"In the past year, justice has been destroyed. Instead of rapid normalization, a permanent state of emergency has been 
implemented."

Kilicdaroglu this month finished a 25-day, 425-km "justice march" from Ankara to Istanbul, to protest the detention of a CHP lawmaker. The march, although largely ignored by the pro-government media, culminated in a massive rally in 
Istanbul against the crackdown. 

In a statement, the U.S. State Department lauded Turks for defending their democracy, but cautioned about the need to 
preserve basic freedoms. 

"More voices, not fewer, are necessary in challenging times," it said.

Thousands march 

With the sun setting over Istanbul, many of the marchers en route to the bridge waved Turkish flags and photographs of those who died. Roads near the bridge, since renamed July 15 Martyrs' Bridge, were thronged with marchers and some opted to take ferries rather than navigate the heavy crowds.

​In the run-up to the anniversary, Turkish media has been saturated by coverage from last year's coup, with some channels showing almost constant footage of young men and headscarved mothers facing down armed soldiers and tanks. 

One man, 20-year-old Ismet Dogan, said he and his friends took to the streets, heeding the call from Erdogan to defy the soldiers. He was shot in both legs, he told broadcaster TRT Haber.

"My friends and I said, 'We have one nation, if we are to die, let's do it like men,'" he said. "Everyone who was there 
with me had come there to die. Nobody was afraid of death." 

 

With files from The Associated Press