Charges over D.C. melee escalate U.S.-Turkey tensions


Peter Newsham is pictured. | AP Photo

Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham speaks during a news conference on Thursday about the altercation outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington during the visit of the Turkish president. | AP Photo

Police said they are charging 12 Turkish security personnel over the May clash with protesters.

A U.S. police decision to file criminal charges against 12 Turkish security guards accused of beating up protesters in Washington, D.C., is further rattling the already-tense relationship between the United States and the Turkish government.

The D.C. metropolitan police announced the charges and arrest warrants on Thursday amid growing outrage among U.S. lawmakers over the May 16 incident. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the police move, according to media reports, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry held meetings with the U.S. ambassador in Ankara.

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Turkey is unlikely to extradite the men to the United States, where there are still questions about what sort of diplomatic immunity they might have from prosecution. And despite the anger in Washington, the U.S. government considers Turkey too critical an ally to lose over what happened with the protesters. Still, even if the suspects are never tried in U.S. courts, American officials hope the charges send a strong signal.

“You had peaceful demonstrators that were physically assaulted in the District of Columbia,” Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said. “The message to folks that are going to come to our city, either from another state or another country, is that’s not going to be tolerated in Washington, D.C.”

The clash occurred while Erdogan was visiting Washington, and many of the suspects are believed to have been part of the Turkish leader’s security detail. Video showed dark-suited men, some carrying guns and wearing earpieces, rushing past police officers and attacking anti-Erdogan demonstrators carrying signs near the Turkish ambassador’s residence. In one video, Erdogan was seen in the driveway of the ambassador’s residence watching the melee.

As of Thursday, a total of 18 arrest warrants had been issued over the clash. Two people were arrested the day of the brawl, and Newsham said two more were arrested earlier this week in Virginia and New Jersey. Two other suspects, whose charges were announced Thursday alongside those of the Turkish security personnel, are Canadian citizens, Newsham said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement supportive of the D.C. police decision, saying it sent the message that “the United States does not tolerate individuals who use intimidation and violence to stifle freedom of speech and legitimate political expression.”

But State Department officials were vague when asked what more President Donald Trump’s administration would do to ensure that the suspects are brought back to the United States to face the charges.

They would not say if the U.S. government will ask Turkey to extradite the men, or if it would ask other countries to arrest them and hand them over to the United States if those men travel outside Turkey.

“We will weigh additional actions. This is an ongoing process,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Nauert said that while the men were with Erdogan in the United States, they enjoyed what’s known as “derivative” diplomatic immunity, meaning they couldn’t be arrested or charged because they were part of a head of state’s security entourage. But upon leaving the country, they lost that immunity, Nauert said.

Were the men to return to the United States by themselves, they would face arrest. However, it was not clear what would happen if Erdogan tried to bring them back as part of his traveling crew, or whether the United States would even issue the men visas.

Nauert confirmed that U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass had met with Turkish Foreign Ministry officials in Ankara, but she declined to characterize the discussions. Turkish Embassy officials in Washington, D.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Newsham, the police chief, said the 14 foreign suspects named Thursday were identified with the full cooperation of the State Department by comparing videos of the incident to passport and visa photos. The chief said his department would circulate additional photos of yet-unidentified suspects who could possible face charges.

The U.S.-Turkish relationship has been on a downward slide for many months, despite the fact that the pair are longtime NATO allies, the U.S. has troops based in Turkey and the two work closely on counter-terrorism.

Part of the reason is Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic behavior, as well as differences between the two countries over how best to fight the Islamic State terrorist group. Turkey is also angry that the United States has not yet handed over Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan blames for a failed coup attempt nearly a year ago.

The Turkish government alleges that the protesters provoked Erdogan’s guards, and that some were affiliated with groups Turkey considers terrorist outfits. Erdogan blasted the decision to charge the men, according to The Associated Press, asking: “If they are not going to protect me, why would I bring them with me to America?”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have reacted with anger over the May 16 melee, with some even suggesting the United States should expel the Turkish ambassador. A bipartisan group of senators wrote a letter to Tillerson demanding pressure on Turkey to waive any sort of legal immunity the suspects may have.

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