How Turkey ended up in the dock in the United States
In a brief submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice in ongoing litigation, the Biden administration asserts that the Republic of Turkey is not immune from suit for the attacks perpetrated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s security detail against peaceful protesters in Washington, DC in 2017. Playing a leading role in this lawsuit is Andreas Akaras, a politically savvy Greek-American lawyer.
Talking to Kathimerini, Akaras, who represents several of the victims attacked by Erdoğan’s guards, said that both the government memo and the resolutions passed by Congress on the incident “reflect the feeling in the United States on the true nature of Turkey,” a country that “violates human rights and has no limits.”
It is a case that, according to Adam Klasfeld, editor-in-chief of legal news website Law & Crime, “captured the national imagination and attention like few stories that I covered, even with folks who otherwise do not closely follow U.S.-Turkish relations. So many people have told me about how they could not believe that could occur on the streets of Washington, DC, to then-silence from the White House.”
The brief was filed in response to an order directed by the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia to the Department of Justice that, in consultation with the Department of State and the Secret Service, lays out the position of the United States government following an appeal by Turkey that claims the actions of the presidential bodyguards were in defence of the Turkish president, something rejected by the U.S. government.
On the previous Friday, in a bipartisan letter, the leadership of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees informed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken of their position that Turkey was not afforded asylum by U.S. law in this case.
Responding to Kathimerini on the significance of the congressional letter, attorney Akaras stated: “I think it helped. In the United States we have checks and balances, and Congress, the legislative body, said that we interpret the law in this specific manner and according to this Turkey does not have immunity. It showed that the legislative branch agreed with the District Court, and that it would not oppose the government on this issue. So, it did contribute to the decision, because all the branches of government agreed that the FSIA (Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act) does not afford Turkey immunity from suit.”
Responding to Kathimerini on how this consensus decision was reached, Akaras explained: “Because there is a difference between fantasy and reality, between an impression and logic. Turkey attempted to create a parallel reality to reality itself. Beyond the limited public videos, there are other videos seen by the attorneys and the courts that show beyond any doubt that the attacks carried out by the Turkish bodyguards were not done in defence of their president. There was no danger there; in fact, there was no expression by U.S. police officers or the Secret Service, responsible for protecting all foreign heads of state who visit the United States, that would demonstrate there was any threat. The Turkish guards simply attacked the protesters and proceeded to tear up their placards. The guards were not protecting their president, they were on the offensive, intent on violating the right of the protesters to freely express themselves.”
Akaras says that “it would be immensely surprising if the Court of Appeals does not uphold the decision that Turkey is not immune from suit.” As for what comes next, he expects that Turkey will lodge an appeal with the Supreme Court, but he sees it as unlikely that the matter will be taken up, as the Supreme Court only accepts a few cases per year for consideration. Thus, he sees the case moving closer to litigation on the merits, where the Turkish guards can be judged for their actions. Akaras adds that “we have great confidence that we can prove that what took place was intentional and Turkey will be hard pressed to support fictitious defences. Indeed, it is unlikely they will bring the guards to testify, especially the four who are facing criminal charges in the United States, because they will be arrested if they show up.”
We asked him about the hashtag #hesaysattack that is trending on social media. The hashtag goes to the issue of President Erdoğan’s role in the attack. “We have evidence that the attack was ordered by Erdoğan himself. I don’t see Erdoğan agreeing to sit for his deposition, but yes, it is part of the case. As you may see in news reports as well, we hear the Turkish words ‘Dalın diyor,’ words shared between Erdoğan’s presidential bodyguards. They mean ‘He says attack,’ but who is the one saying it? May I remind you that these all took place outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence, with the doors of his armoured car wide open. If there is a security threat, the doors do not open. Here the doors are open, he is in communication with his bodyguards, and within a few seconds there is an organised attack and we hear the words ‘Dalın diyor.’ So yes, it is part of the case.”
Does Akaras consider that the decisions by Congress and the government on the issue hurt relations between Turkey and the United States? “I think it is more than just that, it says we know who you are. Indeed, before the Department of Justice’s brief and the correspondence by the congressional foreign relations committees, another congressional letter circulated signed by 170 members of Congress that identified Turkish human rights violations, that also stated ‘they have brought this mentality to the streets of Washington, DC.’ This has created widespread opinion that Turkey is a country that violates human rights and has no limits, and its leader and agents felt comfortable enough to violate human rights on the streets of Washington, DC! Turkey’s actions at Sheridan Circle are no doubt offensive to American elected officials, not to mention American society on the whole. Simply put, to abuse human rights in your country is one thing, but to have the arrogance and cowardice to do it in our country shows that Turkish officials fail the basics of even being a good guest anymore.” Akaras adds that Congress is “defending the Constitution and particularly the First Amendment, that which protects freedom of speech and the right to disagree with the policies of a government. That was the right being exercised by the protesters that day and Congress sees the actions of Turkey as a threat to the Constitution and the democratic principles of the Unites States.”
What would a potential judgment against Turkey mean legally? “Quite a lot, there is the question of the compensation that the court will determine for our clients, including damages for injuries both physical and emotional. More crucially, there is the real possibility that there will be a legal opinion rendered by a federal court in the United States that Turkish presidential guards, and maybe even the president of Turkey himself, deliberately attacked people on the streets to deprive them of their freedom of speech.” Akaras stresses that Turkey “has not displayed this behaviour just this one time in the United States or this one time anywhere; they have broken the nose of an Ecuadorian member of parliament, injured the arm of a United Nations security officer; they have assaulted police officers in Belgium, and there was another incident in South Africa. If this is what the Turkish police do abroad, imagine what they do in Turkey.”
As for the United States, Akaras believes that “because this is an unprecedented issue, this case will be taught in law schools as the most contemporary example for applying the FSIA legal framework. Because it is important for many reasons, including freedom of speech, the jurisdiction of courts in judging a country that violated American laws… that is something interesting.” And historic, we add. “And historic,” he agrees.
(A version of this article was originally published on Kathimerini, reprinted here with permission.)