Erdogan Rejects Arrest Warrants Over DC Assaults: ‘What Kind of Law is This?’

By Patrick Goodenough | June 16, 2017 | 4:37 AM EDT

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of his Justice and Development Party on June 13, 2017. (Photo: Office of the Presidency, Ankara)

(CNSNews.com) – A diplomatic row between the Trump administration and Turkey’s Islamist leader deepened Thursday, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily rejected U.S. arrest warrants for members of his bodyguard accused of assaulting protesters in Washington last month.

D.C. police on Thursday announced arrest warrants for 12 Turkish security officials, as well as two Canadians, a day after arresting and charging two Turkish-Americans on felony and misdemeanor assault charges. Police said nine protesters had been injured.

“They have issued arrest warrants for 12 of my bodyguards,” the Anadolu state news agency quoted Erdogan as saying at a Thursday evening Ramadan fast-breaking event in Ankara. “What kind of law is this?” he asked. “If my bodyguards cannot protect me then why am I bringing them to America with me?”

The charges arise out of an incident on May 16 when members of Erdogan’s security detail and others crossed police lines near the Turkish ambassador’s residence and allegedly assaulted demonstrators protesting against the visiting Turkish president.

Video footage showing the violent beating and kicking of unarmed civilians in the heart of the nation’s capital – as Erdogan watched from a distance – triggered outrage on social media and brought strong protests from lawmakers and the State Department.

As police investigations got underway Turkey was unrepentant, accusing the DC police of failing to do their job and not quelling a “provocative” protest.

Far from apologizing, Ankara painted itself as the aggrieved party. The foreign ministry on May 22 summoned U.S. Ambassador John Bass for a formal protest, and criticized “the lapses of security experienced during our president’s stay in Washington, which were caused by the inability of U.S. authorities to take sufficient precautions.”

Meanwhile, on May 25, the House of Representatives – in a 397-0 vote – passed a resolution condemning the violence, calling for those responsible to be brought to justice and for measures to ensure such an incident does not happen again.  Turkey dismissed the measure, calling it an action that was “against the spirit of alliance and partnership” between the NATO allies.

On Thursday, following news of the arrest warrants, Bass was called in to the foreign ministry for another dressing-down.

In a statement afterwards the ministry said the ambassador had been informed that the arrest warrant decision was “wrong, biased and lacks legal basis.”

“This incident would not have occurred if the U.S. authorities had taken the usual measures they take in similar high-level visits and, therefore, Turkish citizens cannot be held responsible for the incident that took place,” it said.

The ministry also repeated earlier allegations that protesters had carried “flags and symbols of [a] terrorist organization” – a reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed armed group that has waged a separatist struggle in south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades.

At a press briefing Thursday, DC Police Chief Peter Newsham was asked about the claims that PKK supporters were among the protesters.

“In Washington DC we do not care particularly what your views are, what you support or what you do not support,” he said. “Our role as a police department is to make sure you can do so safely, especially if you’re here peacefully demonstrating.”

“There is no indication right now that the protesters were a terrorist group,” Newsham added.

State Dep’t: Immunity fell away when suspects left the country

In a statement read out by spokeswoman Heather Nauert at a State Department press briefing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the criminal charges against the 12 Turks “send 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.”

“The State Department will continue to work with law enforcement and the relevant legal authorities in the case,” Tillerson added. “When an outcome is reached, the department will determine if any additional steps will need to be taken.”

Regarding the question of immunity for the Turkish bodyguards, Nauert explained that while members of a visiting leader’s entourage are said to enjoy “derivative head of state immunity,” that falls away the moment they leave the country – “and they then become subject to legal action, such as an arrest or a subpoena.”

In response to a question, Nauert hinted that if Erdogan tries to bring the wanted bodyguards with him when he pays a customary visit to the United Nations in New York in September, they would run into visa difficulties.

Although she said she could not comment on whether or not they would be issued visas since that process is confidential, Nauert added, “In order to get a visa you would have to apply for a visa. I will just say we know that they have warrants out for their arrest.”

According to DC Police, investigators used “video technology” to identify the 12 Turks. Three of the 12 are identified as police officers and the rest as security officials. One is a woman.

The 12 wanted Turks include nine security officials -- eight men and one woman -- and three police officers. (Photos: DC Police)

They are wanted variously on felony counts of “assault with significant bodily injury” and “aggravated  assault,” and on misdemeanor charges of “assault or threatened assault in a menacing manner.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who had earlier urged authorities not to allow the Turkish suspects to leave the country, welcomed Thursday’s development.

Royce said the State Department must “double down on efforts to help bring these individuals to justice” and should also reject a proposed sale of $1.2 million worth of semi-automatic handguns and ammunition to the Turkish security forces.

Critics of the Turkish government pointed to the assaults in DC as illustrative of Erdogan’s behavior at home, where he has overseen a massive crackdown on dissent since last summer’s failed coup attempt.

The May 16 incident occurred shortly after Erdogan held what appeared to be a cordial meeting with President Trump at the White House.

Although Trump had earlier been criticized for congratulating Erdogan following a controversial referendum granting the Turkish president far-reaching new powers, bilateral relations are strained.

Among the main areas of contention are Trump’s decision to arm a Syrian Kurdish group fighting against ISIS, and Turkey’s unsuccessful bid to have the U.S. extradite a Turkish cleric whom Erdogan accuses of directing the coup bid.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow