‘I could have died’: how Erdoğan’s bodyguards turned protest into brawl

The Guardian, UK

US lawmakers called on Turkish leader to discipline his security detail, saying violence was reflective of treatment of press, minorities and political opponents

The first sign things could turn violent outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington came when a group of men in trim suits and slick ties approached the small group of demonstrators who had gathered nearby to protest the visit by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“They curse us, they curse my wife, my mother, my sister, my grandma,” Seyid Riza Dersimi told the Guardian.

Then, suddenly, more men – some in suits and some in matching khaki outfits – surrounded and attacked Dersimi and his fellow demonstrators.

Dersimi, 61, saw one of these men grab a woman around the neck and start punching her in the face. As he moved to help her, he was attacked by three to four men, who pushed him down then kicked him repeatedly.

“I couldn’t get up, I tried to cover my head with my arms, I don’t know how long they were kicking me,” Dersimi said. “Then I get up and I’m bleeding”.

Footage from Tuesday’s protest shows extraordinary scenes of violence in the Washington sunshine. The attackers – who included members of Erdoğan’s security detail – run amok, beating and kicking protesters.

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Footage from Tuesday’s protest shows extraordinary scenes of violence. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

The demonstrators – including older men and young women – were left bloodied, battered and bruised, while Washington police officers attempted ineffectually to stop the violence.

Video released on Thursday by Voice of America’s Turkish service appeared to show Erdoğan watching the melee stone-faced from the embassy driveway.

He had just returned from a meeting at the White House with Donald Trump, who rebuffed his attempts to get the US to stop backing Kurdish forces in Syria.

But Erdoğan’s trip has caused him further pain as senior US politicians call on him, and the US government, to discipline the members of his security detail involved with the altercation – which has created a lasting, violent image of peaceful protesters beaten on American soil by people tied to a foreign regime.

“We should throw their ambassador the hell out of the United States of America,” US senator John McCain said, unprompted, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday morning.

“These are not just average people that did this beating, this is Erdoğan’s security detail, somebody told them to go and beat up on these peaceful demonstrators and I think it should have repercussions, including identifying these people and bringing charges against them,” McCain said. “After all, they violated American laws in the United States of America, so you cannot have that happen in the United States of America”.

He followed the interview with a letter to Erdoğan, co-authored by senator Dianne Feinstein, expressing their “grave concern” about the protest violence.

“The violent response of your security detail to peaceful protesters is wholly unacceptable and, unfortunately, reflective of your government’s treatment of the press, ethnic minority groups and political opponents,” the letter said.

Dersimi was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he received stitches on his nose, was treated for a head injury and found he had lost one tooth and loosened several others.

“I cannot eat,” he said. “I am just eating yogurt and soup. I cannot chew,” said Dersimi, who welcomed McCain’s comments.

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A man is seen bloodied from head wounds outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington. Photograph: HANDOUT/Reuters
“This is crazy – they are kicking us, I could have died – this is America, this is unacceptable, this is what makes me upset”.

Dersimi, a businessman has been a US citizen since 1992, said he was enraged that a peaceful protest could turn so violent – though he noted that the altercation was peaceful “compared to what happens there [in Turkey]”.

The attacks were not completely unexpected: last year, Erdogan’s security detail clashed with reporters during the president’s visit to Washington DC in March.

The protester’s signs, were certainly provocative – “Mr Trump please stop Erdoğan,” “Turkey support Isis” “Erdoğan loves Isis,” – but in Washington, small, peaceful protests against another country’s government are the norm and are generally met with little fanfare.

And this particular group of anti-government demonstrators were not an intimidating bunch – at least three of the men were older than 60, including Dersimi, and one of the women had brought her child.

Which is what made the violence all the more shocking for protesters such as Ceren Borazan, who identified herself on social media as a woman seen in photos being held around the neck by a suited man.

“I ran in the opposite direction from our friends and got caught by one of the security guards. He put me in a headlock to the point where he popped a blood vessel in my eye,” Borazan wrote on Facebook. “He held me and threatened to kill me.”

Borazan, a Kurd, said that during the attack she had feared for her life. She added that the experience “has shown us that as Kurds we are not even safe from Turkey’s racism and terrorism here in the United States. However that will never stop our spirit and struggle for freedom for our people here and in Kurdistan.”

The citizen journalism blog Bellingcat launched a campaign on Wednesday to identify each person who attacked demonstrators, including a man who went to kick Dersimi, but pulled back at the last moment. The suited man was found in other footage from Erdoğan’s visit as part of his security detail.

The US state department would not confirm that the attackers were connected to the Turkish government, though McCain and other US officials have said as much. Bellingcat also noted that most of the attackers were wearing pins, lanyards and earpieces that most likely indicate they were officials.

The Turkish embassy insisted the opposite late on Wednesday.

The embassy said that the protestors were “affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party)“ and had “began aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the President”.

“The Turkish-Americans responded in self-defense,” the embassy said. “We hope that, in the future, appropriate measures will be taken to ensure that similar provocative actions causing harm and violence do not occur”.

Mehmet Yuksel is the US representative of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, which has been targeted in a broad crackdown on Turkey’s opposition, press and academia following an attempted coup in 2016.

He arrived at the protests after the altercation had ended to find his friends lying injured on the ground.

Yuksel said one woman Lucy Usoyan, was recieved such extensive head injuries in the attack that her doctor advised her not to speak with reporters.

He said it was “unacceptable” for such violence to occur at a peaceful protest and that there were no signs of the PKK at the demonstrations.

The House committee on foreign affairs asked attorney general Jeff Sessions and secretary of state Rex Tillerson to bring criminal charges against the perpetrators of the attacks in a letter on Wednesday.

In this request, the committee highlighted how the behavior reflected the scenes in Turkey, where tens of thousands of people in Turkey have been detained in Erdoğan’s crackdown.

The letter said: “Alarmingly, this behavior is indicative of the broad crackdowns on political activists, journalists and religious freedom in Turkey that have greatly harmed Turkish democracy in recent years.”