On May 16, 2017, against the backdrop of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington, the Turkish president’s security detail and pro-Erdogan brownshirts assaulted and beat peaceful protesters in Sheridan Circle in the heart of the city. Video of the incident appears to show Erdogan giving the order for the attack.
While several members of Erdogan’s team subsequently fled the country, police arrested and charged other Erdogan partisans who did not have diplomatic passports and whose crimes were caught on camera. Five U.S. citizens, including Lucy Usoyan, who suffered brain damage in the melee, subsequently sued the Republic of Turkey. While it is rare for a civil suit to proceed against a sovereign state, the egregiousness of the event led the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
Now, Turkey is appealing that decision, citing the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the Federal Tort Claims Act, and Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Representing Turkey in its arguments is Saltzman and Evinch PLLC, a Washington law firm that has long had Turkey as a client and has now formally registered with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.
For the court to uphold Turkey’s argument would be extraordinarily dangerous. Several years ago, I noted that the Turkish Heritage Organization has apparently been collecting data on dissident Turks and others in the United States on behalf of the Turkish government. The Turkish Heritage Organization subsequently engaged Saltzman and Evinch to force a retraction but apparently dropped the process when it became clear the process might lead to discovery. The FBI also reportedly questioned the organization’s then-president about its activities shortly before his resignation. A WikiLeaks dump of emails from Erdogan’s son-in-law (and current finance minister) Berat Albayrak also shows that other Turkish NGOs, such as the SETA Foundation, reported back to Turkish government officials about perceived opponents.
Two patterns emerge. The first is the use by the government of Turkey of nongovernmental organizations to skirt U.S. law and act on Erdogan’s behalf while maintaining plausible deniability. That Turkish intelligence now has files of Turkish dissidents and international critics of Erdogan, including the locations of their homes and places of employment, is a certainty.
The second is more troublesome: a growing pattern in which Turkey not only gathers intelligence on Erdogan opponents abroad but actually seeks to kidnap or kill them. While to date, no known kidnapping attempts have occurred in the United States, they have occurred in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Turkish agents have raised the possibility openly: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was allegedly present at a meeting with Turkish nationals in which they discussed kidnapping Erdogan ally-turned-adversary Fethullah Gulen from his Pennsylvania compound.
Back to Washington: If the D.C. court now dismisses the Sheridan Circle melee lawsuit on the basis that Turkey should enjoy sovereign immunity for events perpetrated on Erdogan’s order against dissidents, critics, and bystanders in the heart of Washington, then Erdogan may interpret that as a green light to do far worse on American soil.
Likewise, if the court dismisses the suit on the basis of the argument that Kurdish civil society activists are terrorists, that too would mean open season on anyone advocating greater partnership with the Kurds (including many current and former U.S. government officials).
Such a scenario is not beyond the realm of the possible. In 1976, agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet detonated a car bomb in Sheridan Circle, killing a former Chilean ambassador and a human rights activist who was critical of his regime.
Just four years later, diplomats at the Iranian Embassy in Washington coordinated the assassination of a former Iranian diplomat who had sought asylum and lived in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. (It was that incident in April 1980, rather than the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran five months earlier, that led the Carter administration to sever ties.)
At stake now is not preserving the traditional notion of sovereign immunity on relatively minor issues, such as collecting on diplomatic missions’ parking tickets or prosecuting diplomats for automobile accidents, but rather accepting that a head of state can order thugs and hit men to target Americans exercising their constitutional rights on their own soil. If the court fails to hold Turkey to account for its agents’ deliberate actions in Sheridan Circle, it will effectively greenlight future murder and mayhem on American soil.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.