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 Erdogan, and other non-affiliated individuals. Local police intervened to stop the attacks, but not before eleven people were injured, nine of whom were taken to the hospital. In the aftermath, two U.S. citizens pled guilty to their involvement in the assault, and 15 Turkish security officials and four other individuals were indicted for their role in the altercation.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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 Erdogan’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 police in Istanbul.
In December 2013, a corruption probe was launched to investigate more than 50 government officials, including members of Erdogan’s inner circle. The government dismissed some350 police officers before the prosecutor eventually ceased the inquiry.
In July 2016, Erdogan 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 percent of the vote. It disbanded the Turkish parliament, gave more power to the executive, and made it possible for Erdogan 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.
On May 16, 2017, Erdogan 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 U.S. 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 Erdogan’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 Erdogan’s supporters, including government security forces and other armed individuals. A line of D.C. police officers initially separated the protesters from the pro-Erdogan 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 Erdogan watching as he exited his car and entered the residence.
Flint Arthur, of Baltimore, Maryland, one of the anti-Erdogan demonstrators involved in the clash, told CNN, “We are protesting (Erdogan’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 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. State Department 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,” reported 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,” reported CNN and Politico. In contrast to these allegations, DC Police Chief Peter Newsham announced in June 2017 that there was no evidence the protesters were associated with any terrorist group.
On September 19, 2017, Erdogan told PBS Newshour that Trump had apologized for the incident. Erdogan 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, reported Business Insider.
A group of Republican lawmakers called the incident an “affront to the United States.” Senator John McCain of Arizona 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 blamed 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. President Erdogan also claimed that U.S. law enforcement was slow in responding to the violence.
19 people indicted, two American citizens pleaded 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, reported 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, reported CNN. All 19 faced felony charges of conspiracy to commit a crime of violence, reported 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.
Prepared by Graham Piro ‘18
Uploaded March 5, 2018