WASHINGTON ― Official Washington wants Turkey to pay a price for its presidential security detail’s alleged role in beating up anti-government protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said the Turkish ambassador should be asked to leave the U.S., and the day before, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to explore bringing criminal charges against the men captured on video attacking demonstrators.
“Agents of foreign governments should never be immune from prosecution for felonious behavior,” Royce wrote in a letter on Wednesday. There’s bipartisan agreement on the issue: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) have directly accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s team of a role in the violence, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) echoed Royce’s call in a statement. “If Erdoğan bodyguards who participated in this attack have entered the country on diplomatic visas, those visas should be revoked right away,” she said. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and McCain sent a joint letter about the incident to Erdogan Thursday. The State Department has reportedly summoned the Turkish ambassador for a meeting to discuss the clashes.
New footage released by VOA Turkish Thursday evening added fuel to the fire. The video purportedly shows the Turkish president’s official car sitting in front of the door to the ambassador’s residence. Chants from the protesters ― “Baby-killer Erdogan!” ― can be heard. A man in a suit, presumably a Turkish official, speaks with someone seated inside the car. He then looks to another besuited man with a mustache, who nods twice and then runs in the direction of the rally. The chanting stops a few seconds later and more serious fighting appears to break out. Police sirens can be heard. Less than a minute later, Erdogan emerges from the car. He repeatedly looks at the violence and then walks into the residence.
But as of Thursday, the only two people facing consequences related to the incident are private citizens who have starkly different views of Erdogan. Jalal Kheirabadi, 42, a Kurdish American of Iranian descent who lives in Fairfax, Virginia, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to assaulting a police officer. Necmi Ayten, 49, a Turkish Erdogan supporter who traveled from his home in Woodside, New York, to welcome the Turkish president, pleaded not guilty to assaulting a protester.
Both men believe they were wrongfully arrested. Kheirabadi claims he was trying to defend himself from several men he believes were working for Erdogan. He says that a police officer got caught up in the scuffle. “Four people beating me, how can I recognize the people?” he said in an interview. Ayten claims he wasn’t even near the ambassador’s residence until after the clashes ended. He and his lawyer believe he was arrested by mistake and that cops were looking for a Turk to blame for the violence. “Any old Turk will do,” Gunay Evinch, his lawyer, said after the arraignment.
A police report identified Ceren Borazan, 26, as the victim of an assault by Ayten. A Turkish Kurd who now lives in New Jersey, she told HuffPost she was attacked on Tuesday by multiple men she believes work for Erdogan. One attacker put her in a chokehold and ruptured a blood vessel in her eye, she said.
Borazan added that as she ran towards cars looking for help she heard a man yelling “Bitch, it’s gonna be the end of your life,” in Turkish. “I swear I thought it was the end of my life,” she said. After looking at photographs of Ayten on Facebook, Borazan said she recognized him from the Tuesday clashes but was unsure whether he worked for Erdogan. A claim that Ayten denies.
Unnamed government officials told NBC News and the Wall Street Journal that they believe the Turkish president’s bodyguards were to blame for the incident, in which police said at least nine civilians and one officer were injured. Two members of the Secret Service sustained injuries too, a Secret Service spokesperson told HuffPost on Wednesday night.
U.S. authorities have not formally charged any member of the Turkish security detail for the violence, and in public, the Trump administration has avoided assigning blame. “Violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest. We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a Wednesday statement.
The Metropolitan Police Department has said it is working with the State Department and Secret Service to find and hold accountable anyone involved in the altercation. Two people with knowledge of the case told the Washington Post that police are investigating Erdogan’s security team. But it is not clear whether U.S. officials will be able or willing to prosecute anyone on the Turkish president’s payroll.
“Unless the bodyguards were clearly acting outside their bodyguard duties, they are probably immune from prosecution. While the specific facts of the incident… are important, they are similar to diplomatic drivers, who also enjoy immunity if, for instance they are involved in a traffic accident,” Hurst Hannum, an international law professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, wrote in a Wednesday email to HuffPost. “While this seems unfair to many people, U.S. diplomats and their staff enjoy exactly the same immunity in other countries.”
The publicly available evidence also makes it difficult to pinpoint how the Tuesday afternoon violence began ― or to identify who is responsible.
The incident took place after two separate rallies gathered outside the ambassador’s residence, one comprising Erdogan supporters and the other loud critics. The groups chanted slogans across from each other peacefully for nearly an hour. But things changed after black cars carrying Erdogan and his team arrived around 4 p.m.
The president was attending an off-the-record session co-hosted by the U.S. think tank the Atlantic Council, which has cultivated controversial ties to Erdogan. In a Wednesday statement to HuffPost, Atlantic Council president Fred Kempe condemned the violence, which he said involved Turkish security, while defending the decision to privately host Erdogan.
Video footage gathered by the protesters shows men in suits breaking through a protective line and beginning to kick and beat people holding Kurdish flags and placards as D.C. police and Secret Service officials tried to intervene. Anti-Erdogan protesters are convinced that the men in suits were Turkish bodyguards, and they believe Erdogan personally gave the order for the assault to begin. But pressed for evidence, they could not offer much. Several protesters who were roughed up cited the well-tailored suits worn by the other side and added that similar incidents occur regularly in Turkey.
A Turkish Embassy statement Wednesday night accused the activists ― a mix of Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Yazidis and others ― of ties with a Kurdish militant group called the PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey list as a terror organization. “The demonstrators began aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the President,” the statement reads. “The Turkish-Americans responded in self-defense and one of them was seriously injured. The violence and injuries were the result of this unpermitted, provocative demonstration.”
It did not say the Turkish security detail had any role in the violence.
The case is hardly closed, though. The investigative website Bellingcat has announced that it will try to identify those responsible using material available on social media. “While it is difficult to prove that some of the men in these tweets are indeed bodyguards or other types of Turkish security officials, some of them clearly were, as shown both in a close analysis of the video and in reports from U.S. officials,” its initial post on the issue reads. It notes that some of the men were wearing items like earpieces and lapel pins and noted their presence in previous recordings of Erdogan’s travels.
Four international law experts told U.S. News & World Report on Wednesday that they believe D.C. police could charge Turkish officials if they gather sufficient evidence. And the congressional statements suggested an appetite among U.S. officials to lift immunity in this case if necessary.
Such a prosecution could escalate the incident to the status of a major diplomatic crisis. The already shaky U.S.-Turkish alliance could grow weaker. With Washington supporting an armed Kurdish group called the YPG in Syria that is successfully fighting the so-called Islamic State, Erdogan has accused Washington of empowering the PKK, which has killed hundreds of Turks. Kurds, meanwhile, believe America has come to its senses, prioritizing its new partnership over an alliance with an increasingly repressive government. Both sides see moments like Erdogan’s visit as hugely important ― as either a chance for the U.S. to make amends or to push back against the Turkish leader.
Outrage after Tuesday appears to have only strengthened the Washington consensus that Erdogan is a difficult authoritarian who should at best be tolerated. The Turkish leader has jailed scores of Kurdish opposition politicians and at least 81 journalists, prompting congressional complaints, and his security team was also involved in violence during an Erdogan visit last year.
That’s welcome news for the U.S. citizens and residents who saw their peaceful protest turn into a bloody brawl.
Mehmet Tankan, a green-card holder of Turkish origin who said seven men held and repeatedly punched him on Tuesday, told HuffPost he wants the U.S. to know that it cannot trust Erdogan and his team to respect the Constitution. He wants a tougher response than what he saw yesterday.
“Don’t let them to come to this country again, they are criminals,” Tankan said. “I know my country, America, will stop them.”
Carla Herreria contributed to reporting.
This story has been updated to include information about new video footage.