Protests outside Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington turn violent; 11 injured

On May 16, 2017, a group of protesters who had gathered across from the home of the Turkish ambassador to the United States were assaulted by embassy security guards, bodyguards for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other nonaffiliated individuals. Local police intervened to stop the attacks, but not before 11 people were injured, nine of whom were taken to the hospital. In the aftermath, two U.S. citizens pleaded guilty to their involvement in the assault, and 15 Turkish security officials and four other individuals were indicted for their role in the altercation.

Key Players

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is president of Turkey. He served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and was elected president in Turkey’s first-ever direct elections in 2014. His time in power has seen many controversial incidents:

In late May 2013, anti-government demonstrations broke out in Istanbul. The protests began when a small group of demonstrators gathered in Gezi Park, located in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, to protest Erdoğan’s plan to bulldoze the park and build a mall in its place. They were angry about the negative impact razing the park would have on the environment. Turkish police tried to clear the park using tear gas and water cannons, injuring more than 100 people, The Guardian reported. The protesters were eventually cleared, but demonstrations spread across the country in response to what many perceived as excessive force on the part of the police in Istanbul.

In December 2013, a corruption probe was launched to investigate more than 50 government officials, including members of Erdoğan’s inner circle. The government dismissed some 350 police officers before the prosecutor eventually ceased the inquiry.

In July 2016, Erdoğan faced an attempted coup by a portion of the Turkish military. Addressing the nation via FaceTime, he urged his supporters to go into the streets and demonstrate against the military. The coup was eventually put down.

In April 2017, a constitutional amendment passed via referendum, with 51% of the vote. It disbanded the Turkish parliament, gave more power to the executive, and made it possible for Erdoğan to remain in power until 2029. International election monitors questioned the legitimacy of the referendum result, in light of last-minute changes to the voting process and state media coverage that was biased in favor of its passage.

Further Details

On May 16, 2017, Erdoğan met with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. During a joint press conference, he pledged to help the U.S. fight terrorism and praised Trump for his election. Trump commented that the United States and Turkey have a “great relationship” and that “[they] will make it even better.”

Meanwhile, approximately 24 demonstrators gathered outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence, waiting for Erdoğan’s return from the White House. The group included Americans, Kurds, and Armenians who opposed the Turkish president’s policies. They gathered in Sheridan Circle, across from a group of Erdoğan’s supporters, including government security forces and other armed individuals. A line of D.C. police officers initially separated the protesters from the pro-Erdoğan forces, but the latter group soon rushed across the street through the police lines and attacked the protesters. The police attempted to break up the fighting.

A video posted to Voice of America’s Turkish language service showed the attacks on the protesters. Another video also showed Erdoğan watching as he exited his car and entered the residence.

Flint Arthur, of Baltimore, Maryland, one of the anti-Erdoğan demonstrators involved in the clash, told CNN, “We are protesting [Erdoğan’s] policies in Turkey, in Syria, and in Iraq. … They think they can engage in the same sort of suppression of protest and free speech that they engage in Turkey. They stopped us for a few minutes. … But we still stayed and continued to protest Erdogan’s tyrannical regime.”

The following day, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement condemning the violence. It read, “We are concerned by the violent incidents involving protesters and Turkish security personnel . … Violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest,” reports Politico. The State Department also reportedly reprimanded the Turkish ambassador for the incident. In response, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry lodged a complaint with the U.S. ambassador to Turkey about the police’s role in halting the incident. It blamed U.S. authorities for their “inability . . . to take sufficient precautions” to prevent violence. The complaint also alleged that U.S. “security personnel” had taken “aggressive and unprofessional actions.”

The Turkish embassy claimed that the protesters were affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), a terrorist organization that has been in conflict with the Turkish government for 30 years. Embassy officials insisted that the protesters were “aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the President” and who “responded in self-defense,” report CNN and Politico. In contrast to these allegations, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham announced in June 2017 that there was no evidence the protesters were associated with any terrorist group.

On Sept. 19, 2017, Erdoğan told PBS Newshour that Trump had apologized for the incident. Erdoğan said he was sorry as well, but he maintained that the protesters had instigated the violence and that local law enforcement was slow in stepping in to stop the fighting, reports Business Insider.

A group of Republican lawmakers called the incident an “affront to the United States.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted, “This is the United States of America. We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this type of thuggish behavior.”


Turkish government blames U.S. law enforcement, protesters for violence

The Turkish government alleged that the protesters were responsible for inciting the violence and claimed they were affiliated with the PKK, a terrorist group in Turkey. Erdoğan also claimed that U.S. law enforcement was slow in responding to the violence.

19 people indicted; two American citizens plead guilty

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, two people were arrested: Ayten Necmi, of Woodside, New York, was charged with aggravated assault, and Jalal Kheirabaoi, of Fairfax, Virginia, was charged with assault on a police officer, reports The New York Times. The two were allegedly among the protesters.

In August 2017, U.S. officials indicted 19 other individuals for their role in the incident. Fifteen were Turkish security officials, and four were individuals not associated with the Turkish government. Several of them faced charges of assault with a deadly weapon, reports CNN. All 19 faced felony charges of conspiracy to commit a crime of violence, reports CBS News.

In December 2017, two U.S. citizens, Sinan Narin and Eyup Yildirim, pleaded guilty to charges of assault with significant bodily injury. Video footage showed the two kicking protesters in the head while they were on the ground, reported The Washington Post. They are not known to be associated with the Turkish government.

Charges dropped, lawsuit ensues

In March 2018, it was reported by The Washington Post that federal prosecutors in the District dismissed charges against four members of Erdogan’s security detail in November. In February 2018, they dropped the cases against seven others. Charges against four guards were active at the time, though the men left the country soon after the incident and experts said it was unlikely they would ever be put on trial.

In January 2019, PRI reported that several of the protestors filed a lawsuit against the Turkish government.

In March 2019, a federal judge ruled that portions of the lawsuit may proceed against three men for their alleged involvement in the beatings of protesters, according to the Post.

In a ruling on March 18, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the suit filed by 15 mostly pro-Kurdish demonstrators, nearly all U.S. citizens and residents, may continue to seek damages for injuries they contend they suffered when guards for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked their group and ignited a melee. The judge’s ruling allows financial claims to continue against the Republic of Turkey, Turkish security forces and five civilians on accusations that they committed assault, battery and hate crimes under D.C. law against the protesters.