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DC Court: Turkey must face charges in Sheridan Circle assault on Kurdish protesters

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A federal court in Washington, D.C., denied a request Thursday by Turkey to dismiss a civil suit by protesters who are seeking damages after they were violently beaten while demonstrating against the visit of the Turkish president to the Capitol in 2017.

The court struck down Turkey’s argument that it is protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in two separate cases filed on behalf of over a dozen plaintiffs, establishing a key marker to hold Ankara accountable in a U.S. court on civil charges.

The case stems from an incident in May 2017 that took place during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Washington, where a group of demonstrators, mostly ethnic minorities of Kurdish and Yazidi descent, were violently attacked by Turkish security officers outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.

Turkey alleges that the demonstrators posed an imminent threat to Erdoğan’s safety, but wide-ranging video footage captured that day shows Turkish authorities and pro-Erdoğan supporters running to attack the protestors, surrounding women and elderly men while punching, kicking and throwing them to the ground.

Federal criminal charges were filed against about a dozen individual Turkish security officers shortly after the incident, but were largely dropped a year after the assault, in March 2018, and coincided with the return to the U.S. of an American pastor held in a Turkish prison.

There have been other instances of Turkish security officers engaging in physical violence in the U.S., with Turkey maintaining it is acting within its rights to exercise security but criticized as using excessive force.

In 2016, Turkish security officers reportedly assaulted journalists and demonstrators outside the Brookings Institution while Erdoğan gave a speech inside, with no charges filed.

Likewise, State Department documents from the day of the Sheridan Circle attacks in 2017 show that Turkish security officers fought with U.S. Diplomatic Security and Secret Service in multiple instances throughout the day of Erdoğan’s visit. The documents were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request filed on behalf of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit against the Turkish government on behalf of the victims from Sheridan Circle is ongoing, with the opinion by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on Thursday setting up the next phase of the case.

The court rejected Turkey’s argument that it was acting within its own security interests and therefore immune from subject matter jurisdiction in the U.S. — subject to the American court system.

Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her judgment that the abundance of video evidence from the scene showed that “the protestors were merely standing on the Sheridan Circle sidewalk” and did not warrant the alleged violent attack by security officers, despite Turkey’s argument they posed an immediate threat to the Turkish president.

“Defendant Turkey points to no indication that an attack by the protesters was imminent,” the judge wrote.

“Instead, the Turkish security forces chased and violently physically attacked the protesters, many of whom had fallen to the ground and no longer posed a threat.”

Representatives for Turkey did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

The ruling on Thursday evening was viewed as a major breakthrough for the plaintiffs to establish that the court has subject matter jurisdiction over their claims against Turkey and that the judge issued her ruling in direct response to Turkey’s motion to dismiss, without requiring oral arguments from the parties.

“We are pleased that the Court watched the hours of video tape we submitted showing the attack by Turkey’s security guards on peaceful protestors at Sheridan Circle,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, Partner at Cohen Milstein and chairwoman of the firm’s Human Rights practice group, and lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“We look forward to proving our claims in Court and to getting a just result for our clients who were attacked and badly injured while protesting against human rights abuses. I am glad the Court agreed that agents of a foreign country should not be able to claim immunity for their violent attack on free speech in the United States.”

Doug Bregman, partner at Bregman, Berbert, Schwartz & Gilday and lawyer for the plaintiffs, said, “We are sending a message to dictators that they cannot do to demonstrators in this country what they do to dissenters in theirs.”

Andreas N. Akaras, counsel from BBS&G, said that the ruling proved “the facts were clear.”

“Turkey’s frivolity and imaginative defenses failed under the scope of the judicial microscope,” he said.

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