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Legal case over melee during Erdogan’s 2017 DC visit moving ahead

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Legal proceedings against Turkish security officers continue to move forward in Washington DC, based on actions they were seen taking against protestors in video recordings during the May 2017 visit to Washington of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  

A melee broke out after a small group of anti-Erdogan demonstrators gathered near the Turkish ambassador’s central Washington residence after Erdogan met with President Donald Trump at the White House on May 16, 2017.  Among the anti-Erdogan protestors were Kurdish and Armenian community representatives. 

Security team’s reactions went beyond basic protective duties

The harsh reaction of Erdogan’s security team to the protest, injuring at least 11, some seriously, was considered unacceptably violent and charges were quickly filed by the Washington, DC police, launching a series of legal battles that continue to irritate US-Turkish relations, since the concept of sovereign immunity has been invoked to protect the Turkish officers involved.  The initial American legal volley included indictments against 15 Turkish security personnel, as well as two American citizens of Turkish ancestry and two Canadian citizens, all of whom are supporters of Erdogan.  The two Turkish-Americans involved in the melee pled guilty to felony assault charges and served prison sentences. 

At the time, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s State Department angrily summoned the Turkish ambassador for an explanation as to why Erdogan’s security guards crossed the DC police lines to attack protestors.  Reactions from Capitol Hill were more intense, as U.S. Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein sent a terse letter to the Turkish government, demanding it take responsibility for a clash; at the time McCain also told a television interview he believed the Turkish ambassador should be expelled as a result of the melee.

 Lack of evidence or instructions from above?

Eventually, US prosecutors quietly dropped charges against 11 of the 15 indicted members of Turkish President Erdogan’s security detail, reportedly for lack of evidence. Turkey actually claimed some of the named officers were not in Washington when the melee occurred.  

Some analysts argue that these instructions came from Trump himself and see parallels with White House pressure for a go-slow approach on the Turkish Halkbank case in New York in order to satisfy Erdogan’s repeated demands, a matter discussed in some detail by former National Security Adviser John Bolton in his latest book. 

The indictment against seven of the security guards was withdrawn in February 2018, a day before outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey to meet with Erdogan in a failed attempt to rebuild frayed bilateral relations.

Current developments unfavorable for Turkey

Fast forward to 2021. Primary legal action is now focused on civil claims. The case is coming up for review in a federal appeals court, which will review the government of Turkey’s appeal of a 2020 decision it lost. The court heard preliminary oral arguments in January. In February 2020, a federal judge found that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) did not protect those carrying out assaults on a peaceful protest on U.S. soil, as was the case with Erdogan’s guards in 2017.  

In January, the three-judge panel handling the case solicited the incoming Biden administration’s views on the case and asked for input by early March.  In addition, Democrats and Republicans sent a bipartisan letter from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Committee on Foreign Affairs urging Secretary of State Blinken to support the protesters’ case against the government of Turkey. 

A Washington Metropolitan Police poster showing the faces of four Turkish security officials suspected of provoking clashes at the Turkish Ambassador’s Residence in Washington, D.C. on May 16, 2017. SOURCE: YOUTUBE/VOA

The letter’s signatories are Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-Texas). The letter’s key point was explicit  “We urge you to make clear the principle that foreign security personnel should not enjoy immunity under the FSIA for engaging in unprovoked assaults on peaceful protestors lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights in the United States.” 

Andreas Akaras, a Washington-based attorney for the anti-Erdogan protesters, told New Europe “Correspondence from the House’s and Senate’s foreign relations committees to Secretary Blinken demonstrate that not only the Biden administration but also the Congress share this view; therefore, all branches of government have demonstrated their desire for accountability for Turkish unlawful action.” 

The Biden administration’s brief, produced by senior attorneys within the Justice and State Departments in consultation with other experts and released this week, was unequivocal: The lower court’s ruling should be upheld, and the FSIA’s shield of immunity only extends so far. “The actions the Turkish agents took after the initial attack leave little doubt that they were using force for a purpose outside their proper protective function,” the brief states.

Attorney Akaras was upbeat in describing for New Europe the Biden administration’s position as laid out in the newly released amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.  He noted “The submission by the administration makes clear that Turkey’s actions were beyond any sense of reasonableness and were intentionally aimed at visiting violence upon the protestors.”

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