On the afternoon of May 16, nine people were injured when members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan’s security team rushed into a crowd of protesters across from the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC, punching and kicking the assembled men and women, even after some were already on the ground.
Now 16 of those involved in the melee face charges of criminal assault.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Police Chief Peter Newsham didn’t mince words in a press conference announcing the charges. “I condemn this attack. This was an affront to our values as Washingtonians and as Americans and a clear assault on the First Amendment,” Bowser said, standing in the Washington Convention Center.
“Using video of the incident,” Newsham said, standing at a lectern with wanted posters propped up behind him, “we have identified the majority of suspects and issued arrest warrants for 16 people that we believe were involved in the assaults.” Newsham called the warrants “a message to the people of the world about how you behave in the District of Columbia.”
He added that in 28 years on the police force, he had rarely seen the type of violence he saw that day.
Within hours, CNN Turkey had tweeted an announcement that Erdogan promised to fight the charges.
In video captured at the scene by various bystanders, DC police on the scene seem almost completely marginalized at first as they try to separate and calm the crowd. It takes several minutes until they finally succeed in breaking apart the protesters and security forces.
In the hours after the protest, tape continued to surface of the afternoon’s events. One video appeared to show Erdoǧan himself being briefed on the situation by a guard and then standing by, quite passively, merely observing the violence carried out — apparently in his name.
There was immediate shock and dismay that this display of sheer brute force by agents of a foreign government was allowed to take place on American soil — in direct contravention of US laws protecting freedom of assembly and protest.
But this isn’t the first time Erdoǧan’s security forces have come under legal scrutiny for brutal actions in the United States. The last time they were in Washington, back in March 2016, they verbally — and physically — clashed with journalists during an event at the Brookings Institution in Dupont Circle.
This is part of a broader pattern with Erdoǧan’s security forces
In the past several years, the Turkish leader has led a crackdown on dissent, both inside the country and from Turks living in the West. And after a failed coup attempt in July of 2016, any minor tolerance for protest against Erdoǧan’s government that might have existed has disintegrated.
Erdoǧan now has a stranglehold on the flow of information — and on who gets to convey it. At least 173 news organizations have been shuttered in the crackdown. In April of this year, Erdoǧan cut off access to Wikipedia, kicked nearly 4,000 civil servants out of their jobs, and shut down 45 civil society organizations. According to a recent New York Times tally, more than 150,000 government workers have been fired and 1,500 NGOs closed down since the coup.
In Ankara just last month, Erdogan banned all after-dark protests, including press events. “This is happening in the context of an unprecedented clampdown on free speech that scoops up both people who are known and have a high profile on social media, like journalists, as well as unknown people," Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch told Bloomberg News.
And that’s just the nonviolent portion of the crackdown.
At least 81 journalists have been jailed in Turkey since the coup. “I have been broken and twisted in more ways than I can imagine,” the novelist Aslı Erdoğan told the Guardian newspaper, after her time in solitary confinement.
The BBC also published what appeared to be evidence of torture in the wake of the coup.
Regular Turkish citizens who have used social media to criticize the government have also seen their lives upended. In March 2016, the New York Times found that in just two years, some 1,845 Turks had been accused of insulting the president and faced criminal charges.
But while Americans have watched this from afar, protesting the Turkish president here in the US has been one way that Turkish expats could safely express their dismay over the direction the country has gone. Our freedom of assembly, in theory, protects them from the type of violence that might meet a protest in Istanbul.
Until it didn’t.
Why didn’t the security guards face charges right away?
At issue, to some degree, was a question of who among Erdoǧan’s detail might enjoy diplomatic immunity, and what it would mean if they were forced to give up that protection.
Writing in the Washington Post two days after the incident, UVA law professor Ashley Deeks insisted, “Diplomatic immunity protects U.S. officials abroad, too, and if we want to make sure American diplomats and agents aren’t subject to harassment in foreign courts, our options for holding Erdogan’s guards to account are limited.”
But many others took a more jaundiced view of whether this sort of action could possibly fall within the bounds of diplomatic immunity.
US senators on both sides of the aisle argued that diplomatic immunity for the Turkish officials involved in the day’s violence was basically compromised the moment the men ran into the mix.
“This is the United States of America,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said at the time. “We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this kind of thuggish behavior.” A handful of Democratic senators also insisted justice be served.
“It is wholly unacceptable for President Erdogan to bring his security personnel to our country and allow them to violently assault U.S. law enforcement officials, American citizens and U.S. residents engaged in peaceful demonstrations,” wrote a bipartisan group of senators in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in May.
For its part, Turkey insisted the security detail was acting in self-defense — bargaining, it seemed, that in all the shock and confusion of the street battle, no one quite knew what happened on that afternoon.
Enter the New York Times video team.
On May 26, 10 days after the incident, the New York Times published a frame-by-frame guide to the incident, using five different camera angles and stop-action photography (basically GIFs) to expose the moments that Erdoǧan’s security — some of whom were clearly armed with pistols — rushed the crowd of protesters (themselves apparently armed only with bullhorns) and began throwing punches and kicks. Breaking down the video, the Times was able to clearly show men kicking and punching — and in one instance choking — protesters.
For the past several weeks, the DC police and the State Department have been investigating and unpacking the events of that day. Finally, it seems, the police have come to some conclusions — namely, that the brutality was unprecedented and, apparently, illegal.
In the press conference Thursday, DC Police Chief Newsham said he would leave questions of immunity to the State Department, but said the warrants for arrest came from the Metropolitan Police Department. He said, several times, that he hoped those named in today’s list of suspects would present themselves to face justice — or claim their innocence.
But it may be too late: Most of the security detail in question left for Turkey with Erdoǧan that week. Unless they return, they most likely won’t face justice at all.