Clashes break out at Turkish leader’s DC speech

Clashes break out at Turkish leader’s DC speech
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Turkish security officials clashed with protesters in Washington on Thursday outside the venue for a speech from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Videos that quickly spread across the Internet showed the standoff getting physical, as Turkish security reportedly fought off protesters outside the Brookings Institution. 

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Erdoğan is one of many world leaders in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit, and appeared at Brookings to tout his country’s progress and describe the global challenges it faces in a critical corner of the world. Turkey is on the front lines of expanding chaos in the Middle East, and has been repeatedly targeted by terror attacks from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Kurdish separatists who are aligned with U.S.-backed fighters against ISIS.  

Yet Erdoğan’s speech was overshadowed by the dramatic chaos, which ensnarled traffic on one of Washington’s busiest streets.

Amberin Zaman, a prominent Turkish journalist and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, claimed that one member of Erdoğan’s security detail called her a “whore” working for militant separatists known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

According to Foreign Policy magazine, Brookings staffers were forced into the middle of the scuffles, attempting to block Turkish officials from regulating the audience. 

“I am in charge of this building,” the Brookings employee said. 

Still, one journalist, Adem Yavuz Arslan, was reportedly thrown out of the talk. 

Critics of Erdoğan have accused him of turning into an increasingly authoritarian leader who clamps down on the press to cement his grip on power.

Erdoğan rejected the criticism on Thursday, claiming that any crackdown on journalists was because they were “terrorists” affiliated with the PKK or other groups.

“Inside Turkey’s prisons there are no prisoners who have been incarcerated or sentenced to imprisonment due to their profession or due to their freedom of expression rights,” he said.

“Criticism I have no problems with nobody whatsoever. But when it comes to insult and defamation of course I have problems,” Erdoğan added. “If they were to insult me, my lawyers would go and fight for a lawsuit.”

The Turkish officials’ stance drew condemnation from free speech advocates in the U.S.

"Turkey's leader and his security team are guests in the United States," said Thomas Burr, the president of the National Press Club, in a statement on Thursday afternoon. "They have no right to lay their hands on reporters or protesters or anyone else for that matter, when the people they were apparently roughing up seemed to be merely doing their jobs or exercising the rights they have in this country.”

Martin Indyk, the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, appeared to discourage journalists from asking questions of Erdoğan during Thursday’s event. 

“I also want to make clear that this is not a press conference. This is a discussion with policy people in Washington,” Indyk said during a discussion with Erdoğan. “We’re trying to avoid that.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 14 journalists were jailed in Turkey last year.  

Erdoğan's policies have vexed the Obama administration, which considers Turkey a critical bulwark against growing violence in Syria but which has denounced its crackdown on free speech and freedom of the press.

On Thursday, the White House said that President Obama would find "some time" later in the evening to meet with Erdoğan, despite a previous decision not to formally schedule time for the two leaders to talk.

—Updated at 4:46 p.m.