Nearly a year ago, on May 16, a small coalition of Kurdish, Yezidi, and Armenian peaceful protesters were brutally attacked and beaten by a group of pro- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan civilians and Turkish security personnel and diplomatic staff near the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., where they had gathered in protest of the Turkish President’s arrival.
The Armenian National Committee of America’s (ANCA) Aram Hamparian was on-site and filmed the attack and immediate aftermath. Erdogan was on his way from a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, where Trump touted the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, saying “We’ve had a great relationship and we will make it even better. We look forward to having very strong and solid discussions.”
This week, that same coalition of communities awaits the sentencing for two U.S. citizens Eyup Yildirim of New Jersey and Sinan Narin of Virginia, who are the only attackers of the 19 indicted who have been arrested. The sentencing hearing is scheduled before the D.C. Superior Court on April 5 at 10 a.m.
Both defendants were arrested in June and despite being charged with hate crimes and facing up to 15 years in prison, eventually plead guilty to aggravated assault, and agreed to a plea deal that recommends only one year and one day in prison, and a $12,500 fine, even though the crime could lead to a ten year sentence. At the sentencing hearing, Judge Marisa Demeo will be able to raise or lower that sentence, based on mitigating or aggravating factors including community impact statements and victim statements. The Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights (ALC) has submitted a Community Impact Statement calling for the severest punishment available under the law.
The civilian protestors who had gathered just hours after the Trump-Erdogan meeting were law-abiding. Several of them held signs advocating for the release of Selahattin Demirtaş, the Kurdish leader of the Turkish pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—a party which includes Armenian-Turkish parliamentarian Garo Paylan. It was a mixed group of men, women, and some children, who had gathered to express their opinions in opposition to Erdogan’s regime.
Murat Yasa, one of the protesters, later testified, “I was there to protest against [Erdogan’s] direct attack on Kurds in Turkey. I was there to protest against the unlawful imprisonment of Kurdish opposition… At any given time, there was at least five to six men over each one of the protesters… I turned around and saw one of the woman protesters, Lucy Usoyan… She was grabbed by two of the bodyguards, and being punched. I ran over to help her, but was kicked to the floor myself. Thereafter, more than 4 men brutally and repeatedly kicked me, as I laid on the cement floor. As I attempted to get up, I was kicked back to the ground each time.”
Nineteen people, the majority of whom were members of Mr. Erdogan’s security detail were charged with violations of D.C. law including assault with a dangerous weapon, as well as with hate crimes.
Unfortunately, despite efforts to promptly respond to the outburst of violence, of the 19 perpetrators, only two are U.S. citizens and therefore physically present for arrest. Two of the accused are Canadians, and the other 15 are Turkish citizens no longer in the U.S. There was no reported effort to extradite those individuals, and initially, according to the US Attorney’s office for Washington, D.C., should the bodyguards return to D.C., they will be arrested.
But just over a week ago, it became public that the government had quietly dropped charges against 11 of the 15 men, citing problems properly identifying them. Not only are their faces documented and clearly recognizable in video footage, but the New York Times was even able to identify the actions of each attacker specifically. It is shameful that a newspaper has conducted more investigation into an attack on peaceful protesters than the U.S. government. Many of these individuals were part of an official security detail and to cite trouble identifying them nearly a year later after an indictment is practically nonsensical.
Moreover, these charges were dropped just one day before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with President Erdogan, timing which falls squarely into a history of U.S. State Department policy of appeasing Turkey. A State Department spokesperson commented that State had nothing to do with the charges being dropped and that “this is what an independent judiciary looks like.” If that timeline is anything more than a coincidence, then the implications are severe. It would indicate open political interference into the U.S. judicial process.
Ironically, many of the Erdogan government’s actions against Kurdish, Yezidi, and Armenian groups hit directly at the very right to protest that these individuals found themselves under physical attack and harm for. The current Erdogan regime, which continues a hateful government-campaign to deny the Armenian Genocide, has a remarkably spotty history when it comes to free speech. The only person in Turkey jailed for a building code violation was Armenian writer Sevan Nisanyan, who many believe was imprisoned for his speech on the Armenian Genocide and criticism of Islam. In Nov. 2016, the activities of about 370 NGOs were suspended, over half of them Kurdish groups. Among the thousands of academics dismissed were around 400 who signed a peace petition calling for an end to army abuses against Kurds in the southeast. According to the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, an estimated 2,500 journalists and media workers have lost their jobs since July 2016. There are now at least 165 journalists, writers and media workers in prison, making Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.
It should be offensive enough in the 21st century that any country, let alone a member of NATO, should act with such blatant disregard for the right to dissent, but this case of brutality has shown us that this disregard is not confined by any sense of “national sovereignty” and certainly does not stop at Turkey’s borders. Moreover, that this attack was born out of that disregard is not merely speculative, but directly echoed by Turkish state media who reported that because “police did not heed Turkish demands to intervene,” Erdogan’s security team and Turkish citizens moved in and “dispersed them” themselves.
Far from being an isolated incident, this same scenario played out yet again just a few months later inside the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square where Erdogan was giving an address to a reception in his honor. Bodyguards were, once again, captured on camera beating up U.S. protesters. Just several hours later, Mr. Trump introduced the Turkish President saying, “It’s a great honor and privilege — because he’s become a friend of mine — to introduce President Erdogan of Turkey.” Mr. Trump later told reporters, “He’s running a very difficult part of the world. He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks.”
It has to be noted that the White House chose not to comment on the Washington D.C. brutality earlier that year, despite bipartisan condemnation from senators including John McCain and Dianne Feinstein. It stands especially at odds when placed alongside the White House’s aggressive calls against political correctness and the lip-service paid to the preservation of free speech. Still, once again we see the effects that ignoring Turkish violence has on President Erdogan’s confidence that that violence will go unpunished, especially now that the charges against most of his bodyguards themselves were dropped. It is almost unfathomable that men who were caught on camera beating civilians will face no punishment or even charges should they return to the United States.
The only small consequence left is for Sinan Narin and Eyup Yildirim themselves. It remains to be seen what sentence will be given for the only two individuals to face charges because of this attack. And though a sentence taking into account the gravity of their actions is absolutely necessary and certainly a good start, it will only be one step in unraveling the tight knot that is the U.S.’ failure to forcefully confront oppressive Turkish policies.
We hope at the least, our judiciary can remain independent and stand as a guardian against foreign government interference in our most sacred rights as citizens on our own soil.