Turkey files motion to quash Washington protest attack case

Turkey is trying to get a lawsuit thrown out filed by the demonstrators attacked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security guards in a 2017 visit to Washington, DC.

al-monitor Protesters including Murat Yusa and Lusik Usoyan testify before the House Foreign Affairs Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats Subcommittee about the attack on demonstrators by members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security detail, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 25, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman

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Jun 25, 2019

The Turkish government has filed a motion to dismiss a multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed against the Republic of Turkey by mostly pro-Kurdish demonstrators who were attacked by members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail in Washington, DC, on May 16, 2017.

The move is part of a broader effort to bury the case, which has seen Turkish authorities pressuring plaintiffs and their loved ones back in Turkey to drop the charges, the victims say.

In the 82-page document submitted on June 4 by DC-based law firm Saltzman & Evinch, it is argued at length that the Turkish president faced life-threatening circumstances as he pulled up at the elevated driveway of the Turkish ambassador’s residence on Sheridan Circle in his armored sedan. The Turkish leader’s guards were exercising discretionary acts of security to “remove the perceived threat” posed by a group of protesters including women and children who stood on the grass around Gen. Sheridan’s monument. 

The violent melee that unfolded outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on Sheridan Circle triggered a barrage of outrage. Erdogan’s notoriously thuggish guards were captured on video beating and kicking men and women alike. Congressmen on both sides of the aisle called for the Turkish envoy’s immediate expulsion and some 15 of the guards were indicted by a district court and banned from re-entering the United States. In March, a US federal judge ruled that 15 of the demonstrators, nearly all US citizens, may continue to seek damages for the injuries they said they had suffered at the hands of Erdogan’s men in what they contend amounted to assault, battery and hate crimes.

According to Turkey’s filing, however, Erdogan, whose policies and "even his mustache" “engender passionate debate,” had faced at least 300 separate assassination attempts since catapulting to power in 2002. The Turkish strongman, “perhaps no less than the US president,” had “extraordinary security needs.” In any case, the memorandum continued, Turkey’s presidential security detail ought to be immune from prosecution under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the case thrown out.

Turkey’s earlier efforts to prevent the case from being accepted by federal prosecutors failed, but it could yet get off the hook. Erdogan may well raise the issue when he meets with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Japan later this week.

In what was a likely sweetener ahead of the meeting, a Turkish court freed US Consulate employee Mete Canturk, who was being held under house arrest since January last year on alleged links to the failed July 2016 coup to overthrow Erdogan. Metin Topuz, a fellow local employee at the US Consulate in Istanbul who is being held on the same charges, will appear in court on Friday. In the likely event that he too is freed pending trial, tensions between Washington and Ankara may ease. Erdogan’s hopes of hosting Trump in Turkey next month might even materialize, or so he hopes.

Well-informed sources who closely follow the case described the Turkish line of reasoning as “Orwellian” and based on a “subjective reality.” One of the sources, who like all the others declined to be identified by name because of the sensitive nature of the proceedings, told Al-Monitor, “It's a woulda-coulda-shoulda defense” that justifies the brutality unleashed by Erdogan’s security guards on the protesters on the grounds of “what they might have done rather than anything they actually did, which was to peacefully exercise their democratic rights.”

The State Department, whose opinion matters in such cases, could easily intervene on Turkey’s behalf. The decision may well hinge on how far the bigger problems between the NATO allies play out, notably Ankara’s stubborn refusal to scrap the Russian S-400 missile deal. 

Throughout the document, the demonstrators’ unconcealed sympathy for imprisoned Kurdish militant boss Abdullah Ocalan (they brandished placards picturing the mustachioed 71-year-old) is upheld as proof that they are dangerous terrorists. Ocalan founded and led the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, Europe and the United States. 

The plaintiffs may well retort that Erdogan was busily reminding the public of Ocalan’s calls on the country’s largest pro-kurdish block to remain neutral in the run-up to Sunday’s municipal redo election in Istanbul. (They voted for the opposition in droves, helping it ride to victory). 

“They invoke Ocalan to demonize us but it's ok to do so when they are desperate for votes. Their entire defense is a joke,” Murat Yasa, one of the plaintiffs who had to be hospitalized as a result of his injuries, told Al-Monitor.

His earlier comments to Al-Monitor about being willing to drop his suit if the Turkish government resumed peace talks with Ocalan was cited in the document as proof of the political nature of the litigation and of “his support for, if not activism on behalf of, the PKK.” Yasa observed, “All this this proves is my commitment to peace.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers declined to comment. The Turkish Foreign Ministry did not return a request for comment.

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