Washington, D.C. police may have their hands tied by diplomatic rules as they investigate Turkish officials for their role in a Tuesday attack on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
“There could be a diplomatic immunity issue,” Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham said at a press conference on Wednesday.
MPD is looking into the altercation that occurred on the same day Turkish President Recep Erdogan met with President Donald Trump at the White House. Video captured by Voice of America shows protesters and Erdogan supporters gathered outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence before Erdogan’s stop at the house.
Police managed to separate the two groups by the time Erdogan arrived, but tensions exploded when a man breached the police line and ran across the street to attack a protester. A swarm of bodyguards and Erdogan supporters followed, rushing into the crowd of protesters to join the fight.
Voice of America reports that some of Erdogan’s bodyguards were involved in the scuffle, which police confirmed left 11 people and one police officer injured. Despite the the video evidence showing Turkish authorities viciously beating protesters in the melee, MPD may be unable to arrest any suspects that work for the Turkish embassy.
Under U.S. and international law, certain diplomatic personnel assigned to foreign embassies in the U.S. are provided immunity from arrest and prosecution. So-called “diplomatic agents” and “administrative and technical staff” enjoy complete immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of U.S. courts, according to State Department guidance for law enforcement.
A third category of diplomatic personnel, known as “members of service staff,” perform less critical support tasks and are only afforded criminal immunity for acts carried out as a part of their official duties.
It is unclear which of the bodyguards involved in Tuesday’s fight are assigned to the Turkish embassy and thus could possibly possess some category of diplomatic immunity. The State Department issues a special identity card to all recognized diplomatic staff in the U.S. It is the only authoritative identity document that establishes exactly what protections the bearer might have.
Officials traveling with heads of state do not necessarily have diplomatic immunity, even if they have entered the U.S. on a diplomatic visa.
Newsham, who called Tuesday’s incident a “brutal attack,” said both the Secret Service and the State Department are cooperating with MPD’s investigation. Police have arrested Ayten Necmi of Woodside, N.Y., for aggravated assault and and Jalal Kheirabaoi of Fairfax, Va., for assaulting a police officer.
“We intend to assure that there is accountability for anyone involved in this assault,” Newsham said.
The State Department condemned the attack as an assault on the “rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest.”
“We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms,” department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement on Wednesday.
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