U.S. court documents show Turkish bodyguards in string of fights during 2017 Erdoğan Washington visit

Documents newly released by a U.S. district court reveal that bodyguards of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as attacking peaceful protesters in front of cameras outside the Turkish ambassador’s Washington residence, were involved in a series of so far unreported violent incidents during the 2017 visit.

The May 16 attack on mainly Kurdish demonstrators on Massachusetts Avenue, in an area home to most of Washington’s foreign embassies, sparked a diplomatic dispute between Turkey and the United States, adding to their already troubled relationship. 

Eyüp Yıldırım from New Jersey and Sinan Narin from Virginia, U.S. citizens of Turkish origin, were sentenced to a year in jail last year for joining in with the attack on the protesters, but the presidential bodyguards left the country before charges were brought, though the charges against them were later dropped.

Despite Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump both saying they have a close personal relationship, the May 2017 visit was the first and only trip the Turkish president has made to Washington in nearly three years of the Trump presidency. While other regional leaders have been hosted several times at the White House, Erdoğan has not been invited to Washington since.

Court files of official correspondence between U.S. officials and statements made by the head of the U.S. security detail protecting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu during the visit show the incident caught on camera was not the only violent attack by Turkish bodyguards on demonstrators, and that U.S. security personnel were hit and assaulted while trying to hold them back. 

Erdoğan koruma 2

The U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DS) presented the court with statements about events that took place during the Turkish delegation’s visit on May 15 and 16, 2017. It also received as evidence internal correspondence between U.S. institutions, notably between the Secret Service and Diplomatic Security Service.

These documents show a series of incidents took place on the same day in addition to the brawl on Massachusetts Avenue, which received global media attention thanks to Voice of America cameras at the scene.

The U.S. court is still processing protesters’ claims for damages against Turkey, although it has been more than two-and-a-half years since the incident. No date has been set for the next hearing.

The official documents show that, in addition to the widely reported May 16 brawl, Turkish security officials were engaged in a series of confrontations both with protesters and U.S. police and secret service officers.

The Turkish security detail aggressively pursued protesters, ignoring their U.S. counterparts’ warnings to remain in their vehicles, and at one point left a Washington police officer bloodied after an altercation broke out between Turkish and U.S. officers, according to the court testimony.

Two Turkish officials, including the head of Çavuşoğlu's security team, were arrested and had their weapons confiscated due to their aggressive behaviour, the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service officer in charge of the Turkish foreign minister’s security testified.

In the first incident described to the court, the head of Erdoğan’s personal security detail was “screaming at five to 10 other members of the Turkish delegation … his face was about a half-inch from the face of one gentleman,” the U.S. agent in charge of Çavuşoğlu’s security detail said.

The U.S. agent intervened to tell the Turkish agent it was “unacceptable behaviour to scream” at his staff in public during a diplomatic visit. 

“The Turkish presidential detail leader refused to speak with me privately and began to walk away,” he said.

The agent’s testimony goes on to describe Turkish security personnel aggressively stopping a member of the public filming the foreign minister.

Washington brawl

At 4:00 p.m., the U.S. security officer said Turkish bodyguards “upon seeing the protesters, had run directly into the crowd to physically engage them,” in the process punching a Washington police officer “directly in the nose causing massive blood flow”. The Turkish detail also assaulted other local police officers, the officer’s testimony said.

“MPD (Metropolitan Police Department) officers stated that Turkish security officers used some sort of unknown aerosol on the protesters which they are investigating further,” the officer said.

At around 6:00 p.m., as the Turkish foreign minister’s car passed another group of protesters on the way to the Turkish Embassy, the U.S. officer said seven Turkish “suit and tie” security personnel rushed from their passenger van at a single female protester.

“It was at this time I looked over at the female Turkish security personnel and observed her grab the protester and they began to fight,” the agent said. “The other Turkish security personnel surrounded her and attempted to fight her, however, an MPD officer interceded and attempted to break it up. This action caused a mass of onlookers and other delegation members to crowd around the incident and almost instantly added another 20 random people to the fight.”

As the foreign minister reached the embassy, the police special agent accompanying the minister’s entourage attempted to prevent the Turkish security detail leader from leaving the vehicle since he suspected he would engage protesters again, according to the court testimony. The Turkish officer ignored the agent’s warnings.

“Special agent advised me that he did not feel comfortable transporting a foreign security officer who does not heed his advice. I immediately spoke to the Turkish FM detail leader and his assistant detail leader and advised them of my decision that the Turkish FM detail leader could no longer ride in any DS vehicles due to his failure to heed the advice of an agent and possibly further provoking already irate protesters. I advised that he would have to find alternate transportation to Joint Base Andres for the final departure in one of the many embassy vehicles in the motorcade.”

Minutes later, the diplomatic service officer was called by the special agent asking for backup for a possible arrest. 

“I agreed, and began to walk from the door of the embassy toward the embassy front gate when I suddenly saw special agent and others (possibly U.S. Secret Service) physically struggling with the Turkish FM detail leader on the sidewalk,” the officer said. “In an instant the gaggle of officers and agents went down to the ground in a physical altercation.” 

 “Within another minute or so, at least five to seven Turkish presidential security officers, led by the presidential detail leader who had caused the disturbance on the tarmac of JBA (Joint Base Andres), attempted to storm out of the embassy pedestrian gate to assist their detained colleagues, however, several MPD officers intercepted them and physically restrained them from exiting embassy property,” the officer said.

Two Turkish security officers were detained as a result of the incident, leading to an intervention by the Turkish ambassador, Serdar Kılıç, who asked the U.S. officers to overlook the incident and allow their Turkish counterparts to fly home as scheduled.

Washington Brawl

Despite the series of altercations Turkish security personnel were involved with, Çavuşoğlu complained to the Diplomatic Security Service officer before boarding the plan that U.S. personnel were to blame.

“Just prior to boarding the aircraft, the FM shook my hand and thanked me for our support; however, the FM said that ‘this was not good’ and that he was told by Turkish officials that DS agents were the main cause of the incident,” the officer said. “I informed the FM that this was indeed a regrettable incident, however, not one that DS agents bear responsibility for.