Shaping an undemocratic image of Turkey

Turkish media presented a different version of the events, saying the DC police failed to adequately protect the ambassador’s residence.

2017/05/28 Issue: 108 Page: 14

The Arab Weekly
Tom Regan

During his recent trip to Washington, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan no doubt had high hopes for a successful visit. After all, US President Donald Trump had told everyone in the media how pleased he was that Erdogan had called to congratulate him after his electoral victory.

No doubt he had high hopes that Trump, who had praised Erdogan’s leadership in the past, would see clearly how important it was to clear the way for the extradition of Erdogan’s long-time adversary Fethullah Gulen to stand trial for the alleged role he played in last year’s attempted coup in Turkey.

Instead, Erdogan left a three-time loser: He failed to convince the Trump administration not to arm and support the Syrian Kurds in their battle against the Islamic State. He really made no headway in convincing Trump to help him speed up the extradition of Gulen. And the brawl between his security team and protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington created an embarrassing moment for Turkey.

Court documents describe what happened: A “peaceful” demon­stration consisting of about two dozen Turkish and Kurdish demonstrators were protesting outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, which you are allowed to do in the United States. In front of the residence were members of Erdogan’s security detail and from the embassy. Between the protesters and the security men was a small contingent of local police, deployed to keep the two groups apart because during Erdogan’s previous visit to Washington there had been a brawl in which his supporters attacked another group of protesters.

What then happened was captured on video by two separate sources. Erdogan is seen in the back of a car, watching the protesters. He then speaks to an aide, who talks to another man. Voice of America enhanced a recording made of the scene and played it for several Turkish experts, who agreed that one of the security team says something like “he says attack.” The Turkish Embassy denied that this is what happened.

The security team charged past the local police and began beating the protesters. The police tried to intervene but several people, including protesters, a policeman and a pro-Erdogan supporter, were injured. The video included footage of three security men repeatedly kicking a woman in the head.

All official Turkish personnel who had been detained were released “under a globally recognised custom under which nations don’t arrest or detain visiting heads of state and members of their delegations,” one US official told the media.

Condemnation was swift and damning. US Senator John McCain said: “This isn’t Turkey. This isn’t a third-world country” and that the United States “should throw the Turkish ambassador the hell out of the country.” The US State Department called in the Turkish ambassador to register a com­plaint about the incident. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce said: “Agents of foreign governments should never be immune from prosecution for felonious behav­iour.” The District of Columbia’s police chief said the incident “appeared to be a brutal attack on peaceful protesters.”

Media condemnation was just as tough. MSNBC cable news host Andrea Mitchell specifically referred to Erdogan as a “thug,” based on this incident and the way he treats members of the media, the courts and other institutions in Turkey.

Then the US House of Repre­sentatives passed a non-binding resolution condemning the attack by the Turkish security detail and called for the prosecution of those involved. House Speaker Paul Ryan called what the incident “completely indefensible” and demanded that Turkey condemn the violence and apologise. He said the response from the Erdogan government was “wholly inadequate.”

In 2016, Erdogan’s security team was accused of attacking protest­ers in Quito, Ecuador, and broke the nose of an Ecuadorian law­maker.

Unsurprisingly, official Turkish media presented a different version of the events saying the local police failed to adequately protect the ambassador’s resi­dence from violent protesters. A claim that is totally unsupported by video of the event.

Then, the Turkish Foreign Ministry, to complete the charade, lodged a formal complaint with the US ambassador in Ankara over what it said were “lapses of security” during Erdogan’s visit. After the non-binding resolution in the US House, Turkey reiterated that it had no reason to apologise.

Under the Trump administra­tion, concerns for human rights have been put on the back burner, particularly in the Middle East and in countries such as Turkey. However, when Erdogan brings that lack of respect for human and civil rights to the United States, he just cements his image as an autocrat and one who is not particularly welcome in the country.

He also creates an image of Turkey as an undemocratic country that many Americans will not want to visit.

Tom Regan, a columnist at, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.

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