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Appeals court rejects Turkey’s attempt to dismiss suit in attack on DC protesters

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A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. rejected an attempt by the government of Turkey to dismiss a lawsuit by protesters who were violently attacked by Turkish security officers in May 2017 during a visit by — and within view of — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the nation’s capital.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday unanimously decided to allow the lawsuit on behalf of the victims to move forward, affirming the district court’s decision from February of last year that Turkey is not entitled to immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

The opinion of the court was written by Circuit Judge Karen Lecraft Henderson, who said that excessive use of force by Turkish security officials was not warranted as a security measure to protect the Turkish president.

“The nature of the challenged conduct was not plausibly related to protecting President Erdoğan, which is the only authority Turkey had to use force against United States citizens and residents,” Henderson wrote.  

“In the same way that speeding down a residential street may occasionally be justifiable but is not an execution of policy, the Turkish security detail’s actions may have been justified in some circumstances but cannot be said in this case to have been plausibly grounded in considerations of security-related policy and thus do not fall within the discretionary function exception.”

The decision by the appeals court represents diminishing options for Turkey to try and throw out the civil lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of at least 20 individuals who were beaten by Turkish security officers outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on May 16, 2017. 

The appeals decision represents a key victory for the victims, who saw the Department of Justice under the Trump administration drop federal charges against nearly a dozen individual Turkish security officers in March 2018.

The dropped charges at the time coincided with the release of an American pastor held in a Turkish prison.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs welcomed the appeals court decision.

“Our clients include parents with young children and retirees who were peacefully protesting Turkey’s abuse of the Kurd community when they were kicked, punched and stomped by Turkish security officials – right here on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, plaintiffs’ counsel from Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, who argued the case to a three-judge panel at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in January. 

“We are pleased with the thoughtful and unanimous opinion issued today by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals finding that Turkey is not entitled to sovereign immunity for its attack. On behalf of our clients, we look forward to pursuing justice at trial.”

Andreas Akaras, counsel from Bregman, Berbert, Schwartz & Gilday, which is also representing the plaintiffs, also welcomed the court’s decision.

“Despite Turkey’s continued efforts to delay justice, thus far each level of review confirms the obvious, that Turkey attacked innocent protesters,” he said.

Video captured on television cameras, cell phones and security footage documented a brazen and violent attack by Turkish security officers on peaceful protesters, mostly of Kurdish and Yazidi descent, who were demonstrating against Erdoğan’s visit with then-President Trump. 

Video from the event showed Turkish security forces, identified by coordinated black suits, rushing a crowd of protesters and pushing and punching them, and when some protesters fell to the ground, kicking and hitting them.

Metropolitan police are shown on video struggling to get the situation under control, outnumbered by the Turkish security officers and unable to protect protesters injured on the ground. 

State Department documents revealed through a FOIA request as part of the lawsuit that Turkish security officials attacked members of the U.S. Secret Service the day before and on the same day of the assault on protesters at Sheridan Circle. 

Murat Yasa, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit whose attack was documented on video, welcomed the court’s decision. 

“I am very happy with the court’s decision that the Republic of Turkey does not have immunity for its attack on peaceful protestors in the United States,” Yasa said in a statement. “I came to this country thirty years ago to escape the persecution faced by Kurds in Turkey but the brutal attack at Sheridan Circle brought these injustices to America’s doorstep.”

Yasa’s attackers included Turkish-American Eyup Yildirim, of Manchester, N.J., who was sentenced in April 2018 to serve one year and a day for assault and conspiracy related to the attack. 

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking damages from Turkey.

It’s unclear how the case will impact U.S. and Turkish relations, with Erdoğan seeking to stabilize relations with the Biden administration amid an economic crisis in Turkey that has weakened his domestic support.

Tags Clashes at the Turkish Ambassador's Residence in Washington, D.C. Donald Trump Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey Turkey–United States relations

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