Nine people were injured on Tuesday, one critically, in an eruption of violence outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on Washington’s embassy row, as supporters of controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including his guards, clashed with protesters.
The melee broke out shortly after Erdogan met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, where he received a warm welcome.
“We’ve had a great relationship and we will make it even better,” Trump said. “We look forward to having very strong and solid discussions.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
Hours later, Erdogan’s guards brawled with protesters against Erdogan’s record on human rights outside the ambassador’s residence. Graphic video published by VOA Turkish shows men in dark suits breaking through a line of police separating the two groups and running across the street towards the protesters.
In Turkish, the video caption identifies Erdogan’s guards as participating in the fight. On Wednesday, U.S. officials confirmed to NBC news that the men beating the protesters were Erdogan’s body guards.
Some of the men in suits carried the Turkish national flag, and at least appears to be wearing an official lapel pin. Some pro-Erdogan protesters participated alongside the guards.
— Amerika'nın Sesi (@VOATurkish) May 17, 2017
On Wednesday, the DC metro police issued a statement on the incident, saying that it “[stands] in contrast to the First Amendment rights and principles that we work tirelessly to protect each and every day.”
According to the statement, the police will be working with the State Department and the U.S. Secret service to identify and hold the assailants accountable.
MPD Statement regarding incident outside Turkish Embassy yesterday pic.twitter.com/ELRi0szlrA
— DC Police Department (@DCPoliceDept) May 17, 2017
Many of the protesters, who appear to be primarily Kurdish, Armenian, and American, were dressed or carrying flags in the Kurdish colors of green, yellow, and red. At least one member of the group carried a sign reading “Free Selahattin Demirtas,” referencing the jailed co-leader of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish HDP party.
Erdogan’s government arrested Demirtas — along with many other political figures in the HDP — after suspending the Turkish law giving members of parliament immunity. Erdogan has long accused Demirtas and the HDP, which is one of Turkey’s three minority parties, of having links to the PKK, a Kurdish liberation militia that Turkey and the U.S. both classify as a terrorist organization. Demirtas and the HDP have vehemently denied any connection to the outlawed group.
Videos of the event posted on Twitter show punches being thrown by both sides. In interviews, both sides accused the other of being the aggressor.
In VOA video, Erdogan’s guards and supporters can be seen kicking the anti-Erdogan protesters who are already on the ground, and at one point, a man in the pro-Erdogan faction stops to stomp on a flag in the Kurdish colors.
“All of the sudden they just ran towards us,” Yazidi Kurd demonstrator Lucy Usoyan told ABC, saying she was attacked by a pro-Erdogan supporter. “Someone was beating me in the head nonstop, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m on the ground already, what is the purpose to beat me?’”
A Facebook video shows many of the protesters wandering around the lawn dazed and bloody afterwards while waiting for an ambulance, which took some of the injured to George Washington Hospital. Two people were arrested, one for assaulting a police officer, according to the Washington police.
Türkiye Büyüyelçiliği rezidansı önünde saldırıya uğrayan 3 Kürt göstericinin yaralandığı, 1 saldırganın ise gözaltına alındığı bildirildi pic.twitter.com/QdcSxuVLcG
— Mutlu Civiroglu (@mutludc) May 16, 2017
Tuesday’s incident isn’t the first time Erdogan’s security detail has displayed an ignorance of civil liberty protections on protesting and free speech while visiting the nation’s capital.
On a visit last year, Turkish security forces accused human rights protesters of supporting terrorism, and at a speech by Erdogan at the Brookings Institution, they forcibly removed a Kurdish journalist from the scene, kicked another, and threw one on the sidewalk. Inside the event, Erdogan’s detail kicked journalists whose coverage they objected to out of the press pool. Brookings staff repeatedly escorted the journalists back into the room.
Here: Turkish security tries to kick a journalist out. Brookings security protects the journalist. Moments ago pic.twitter.com/k0mATo3fh8
— ilhan tanir (@WashingtonPoint) March 31, 2016
While the altercations in America are shocking, they are a small measure of what protesters and journalists routinely face in Turkey. Large gatherings in Turkey are typically met with riot police, tear gas, and water cannons. In the past year, Erdogan’s government has detained over 110,000 people, and arrested nearly 50,000 academics, judges, military officers, and police.
The protesters on Tuesday were also objecting to the Turkish government’s crackdown in the country’s largely Kurdish southeast, part of the escalating conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds.
Turkish security operations in the southeast resulted in the deaths of roughly 2,000 people between July 2015 and December 2016, according to a United Nations report released in March. According to the report, the dead include about 800 security forces members and 1,200 local residents, including civilians.
The U.N. report also notes “numerous cases of excessive force; killings; enforced disappearances; torture; destruction of housing and cultural heritage; incitement to hatred; prevention of access to emergency medical care, food, water and livelihoods; violence against women; and severe curtailment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as political participation” carried out by Turkish authorities.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers sent Trump a letter ahead of his meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday, urging him to address Turkey’s escalating human rights abuses with the Turkish president.
“Over the past several years, Erdogan and his allies have mounted an assault on the rule of law, particularly using sweeping state of emergency authorities to stifle fundamental rights including free speech, undermine the independence of the judiciary, and quash any opposition to their undemocratic actions,” the letter reads.
The lawmakers also raised concerns with Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum, a long-sought victory for Erdogan that allows him even greater power over all branches of the Turkish government. The referendum, the lawmakers note, “suffered from a lack of transparency and lays the groundwork for Erdogan to further undermine democratic institutions.”
The referendum passed narrowly, while Turkey was under a state of emergency and the government was carrying out wide purges of academia, the judiciary, and the media. It has been deeply criticized by international election monitoring agencies.
After the referendum passed, Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him.
This post has been updated with a statement from the DC Police.