Police in Washington, DC, issued warrants Thursday for 12 of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security officers on a range of charges including aggravated assault and threatened assault in a menacing manner.
The allegations stem from a brawl on the lawn outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in the city, which has aggravated diplomatic tensions between the US and its longtime ally.
Shortly after the clash, footage surfaced showing Erdogan watching events unfold from the residence’s driveway. On Thursday, he denied his security detail had done anything wrong and questioned the legality of the warrant.
“They didn’t do anything (to the protesters). In addition to that, yesterday, they detained two of our brothers who intervened… they issued arrest warrants for 12 of my security officials. What kind of law is this? What kind of legal system is this?” he said.
In total, 18 people have been charged or are facing charges over the incident. Of those, two were arrested Wednesday, two on the day in question and 14 are being sought.
A statement issued by the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the decision to issue warrants was “wrong, biased and lacks legal basis.” It said the brawl was “caused by the failure of local security authorities to take necessary measures,” and that “Turkish citizens cannot be held responsible.”
Nine people were injured in the melee which erupted on May 16, though witness and Turkish authorities have offered conflicting accounts of who was involved and who was to blame.
The Turkish embassy says the protesters were affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party),” which is a designated terror group in Turkey, the US and Europe, and has been engaged in a 30-year conflict with the Turkish government.
Turkey alleges the protesters “began aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the President.”
According to protesters and video captured by the Voice of America Turkish service, men wearing suits and earpieces crossed a police line and attacked them.
DC Police Chief Peter Newsham strongly refuted the allegations Thursday, “there’s no indication at all that the protesters were a terrorist group.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert would not say whether the United States plans to seek the extradition of the security officials, who returned to Turkey prior to the completion of the investigation, avoiding arrest.
However, she did note that their diplomatic immunity lapsed when they left the country, and they would be subject to arrest if they returned to the United States.
“The charges filed against 12 Turkish security officials sends a clear message that the United States does not tolerate individuals who use intimidation and violence to stifle freedom of speech and legitimate political expression,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement read to reporters by Nauert. “The State Department will continue to work with law enforcement and the relevant legal authorities in the case.”
“When an outcome is reached,” the statement continued, “the Department will determine if any additional steps will need to be taken.”
Nauert also said US Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass “attended some meetings at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs today in Turkey” amid reports he’d been summoned by Ankara. Last month the State Department summoned Turkey’s ambassador over the incident, which one official called “deeply disturbing.”
DC Police Chief Peter Newsham told reporters Thursday that investigators were able to identify the suspects using video footage.
The charging documents reveal the suspects were identified by comparing screen captures from video footage shot at the protest to visa and passport images using facial recognition technology.
“Any additional actions regarding execution of these warrants will be weighed by the State Department as appropriate under relevant laws and regulations,” he said, noting the State Department has been helpful in supporting the investigation, and insisting no one from the Turkish embassy has been implicated.
Two of the 18 people charged or facing charges were arrested this week.
Sinan Narin of Virginia has been charged with two counts of assault for allegedly kicking a protester, who lost consciousness during the attack. Her recovery from bruising to the brain is expected to take six weeks.
Eyup Yildirim was also arrested Wednesday, and his case is pending extradition from New Jersey.
Two additional men, Jalal Kheirabaoi of Virginia and Ayten Necmi of New York, were arrested and charged immediately following the attack.
US-Turkey relations have s been strained by the United States’ refusal to extradite a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, whom Erdogan blames for orchestrating a July 2016 coup attempt against him.
And the two countries are at odds over Trump’s decision to arm Kurdish militias that are helping in the fight to rout ISIS from its Syrian stronghold in Raqqa.
Turkey sees these militias as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist group in the United States, Turkey and Europe.