Demonstrators injured in Washington by Erdogan's bodyguards

When Democracy Greets Dictatorship


By Sargis Karavardanyan

A fight against injustice, corruption and terror often leads to eruption of violent clashes. When the efforts for ending hostilities take a shape of peaceful protests by unarmed civilians of the United States, it is anticipated that the government will not interfere and silence the right to free speech granted by the Constitution. It will also be logical to expect that no interference into peaceful protests will be done by a foreign superpower that makes an official visit to a democratic powerhouse such as the United States of America.

Surprisingly, the evidence (captured on video) proves that the power of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is vulnerable when challenged by an external force such as Turkey, whose government has faced significant criticism from Western powers for exercising autocratic practices over its subjects.

A large group of Kurdish, Greek and Armenian protesters became the first to experience the erosion of the First Amendment by a foreign government on American soil. The peaceful protests took place on May 17, 2017, in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Those gathered around the residence carried the mission of inveighing the authoritarianism of President Erdogan and his domestic allies against the Kurdish minorities in Turkey.

Upon the arrival of the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was protected by a cadre of bodyguards, mayhem erupted between the guards and unarmed protestors. The violent clash caused severe injuries such as concussion, broken bones, and cuts on various parts of bodies among women and elderly, to name but a few. The video footage captured by the eyewitnesses demonstrates how the bodyguards of the Turkey’s president viciously hit protestors. Confused by the unanticipated chaos, the victims of the brawl crawled and groveled on the ground to escape kicks and punches from the guards to their face.

The problem between Turkey and each of the aforementioned ethnic groups stretches back centuries. The conflict gained momentum in a relatively more contemporary period at the beginning of the 20th century when on the verge of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government planned and executed the mass elimination of ethnic Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and Kurds between 1915 and 1923. Each of the groups protesting on May 17 had their own tragic history created by the inhumane acts of the Turkish government. The main motivation for the protestors of various ethnic groups was that both past and present wrongdoings of the Turkish state are still being practiced on innocent civilians, or have not been recognized by the government.

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Kurdish genocides, Rebellions, and Independence Movements

Throughout the history the Ottoman Turks have developed and exercised a delegitimization agenda targeting the culture, identity, and socio-political rights of the Kurdish minorities. When the Turkish Republic succeeded the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the newly emerging government maintained the principles of that delegitimization agenda. The agenda consisted of practices such as prohibition of the Kurdish language in the educational system, cultural assimilation, and prevention of the formation of any political organizations based on the ethnic identities.

Although the struggle between Turks and Kurds dates back several centuries, the armed conflict revived with the Turkish Independence War. In the aftermath of the war the Turkish nationalist state was established. This state did not want the presence of any minorities, including Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. As a result, the Turkish gendarmes executed so called “mass relocations” of representatives of these minority groups. The true intentions of those relocations were disarming and weakening the groups to prevent any uprising against the Turkish states.

In order to withstand the terrors of the nationalistic Turkish Republic, the Kurds formed guerilla groups to protect the lives of people within their ethnic cluster. Some of the earlier uprisings that the Kurds managed to organize were the Kocgiri Rebellion in 1920, the Sheikh Said Rebellion in 1925, the Ararat Rebellion in 1930 and the Dersim Rebellion in 1938. Both small- and large-scale uprisings continued for the next 40 years until the late 1970s, when the rebellions gained better focus and clearly articulated objectives.

The Turkish government’s oppression of the Kurdish people in Southeastern and Eastern Turkey resulted in the formation of several Kurdish insurgent groups, the most notorious of which was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founded in 1978. The formation of the PKK tilted the Turkish-Kurdish armed conflict towards a new direction by forcing the Turkish military to concentrate more resources and money towards confronting them.

The PKK and other insurgent groups targeted two main objectives. The first, which also generated a number of deadly battles between Turkish state and Kurdish insurgent groups, is to gain independence from the Turkish Republic for regions with majority-Kurdish populations. The second is to achieve greater autonomy for Kurds within Turkey. The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States and the European Union, but is not labeled as such by the United Nations, China, Russia nor Switzerland.

Topics: Kurds, Turkey

Since the formation of the PKK, casualties have become the norm. The cycle of clashes between the two sides can be categorized into three main phases. The first phase encompassed a period between 1974 and 1984 during which the PKK, under the leadership of Abdullah Oçalan, began a campaign for creating an independent Kurdish state and protecting Kurdish rights in Turkey. The first phase of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict witnessed an event known as the Maras Massacre in December 1978. This was a mass murder of more than 100 Alevi civilians in a Turkish city Kahramanmaras or shortened to Maras, executed by the neo-fascist Grey Wolves Turkish guerilla group. The Turkish government covered up those responsible by keeping confidential all details that could reveal the perpetrators.

The second phase, which lasted from 1984 to 1999, was notable for the escalation of the armed violence between Turkish militia and Kurdish independence fighters. It was during this period when the PKK announced and implemented the first official armed insurgency on August 15, 1984. Several days later the PKK activists raided on a police station located at Siirt, Eastern Turkey. By the 1990s, the dynamics of the conflict were impacted by other external events such as the 1991 Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet regime. As a result, Turkey’s President Turgut Ozal considered peace negotiations with the Kurdish politicians and members of PKK in order to reduce armed casualties on the domestic level. However, Ozal’s sudden death on April 17, 1993 forced the negotiations to be withdrawn. The violence between Turkish state and the PKK restarted yet again.

In order to destabilize Kurdish military bases, the Turkish military implemented a counter-insurgency tactic that was designed to weaken uprisings. From 1992 to 1995, the Turkish military demolished more than 3,000 Kurdish villages to prevent the local farmers from assisting or joining the operations of PKK. Even though it was reported that most of the population in those 3,000 villages was evacuated by the Turkish government to protect the innocent lives; nevertheless, the eyewitness accounts and statistics reported by the staggering number of refugees that reached more than 2 million, testify that the Turkish militia showed inhumane treatment of civilians during evacuation.

The victims report that the villages were burned, bombed or occupied by Turkish government personnel in order to prohibit any future PKK undertakings in those regions. In September 1999, the PKK confirmed a unilateral ceasefire and removed its military forces from the Republic of Turkey by re-establishing them in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq. The PKK also adapted a more diplomatic strategy for achieving its objectives and independence from Turkey. In 2002 the PKK became known as KADEK (Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress), and renamed again as KONGRA-GEL (Kurdistan People’s Congress).

The third phase of the conflict began in 2004 and lasts until the present. It was marked by the interruption of the ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces. In this phase, Turkish and Kurdish militants exchanged armed attacks during which tens of thousands of people were killed on both sides. The number of violent casualties kept increasing because the Turkish state still maintained no peace dialogue policy. The PKK’s campaign for independence from Turkey, formation of a Kurdish states, as well as the protection of its citizens was becoming an impossible mission as the Turkish militants were imposing harsh measures on the resolution of the problem. The Turkish army overpowers the forces of PKK and other insurgent groups combined by a great margin. The rebellions and independence movement activities initiated by the Kurdish were costly for the Turkish state; although, the Turkish side was able to undermine any efforts exercised by the Kurds for gaining autonomy and territorial control that would be recognized as a Kurdish state.

The Armenian Genocide

On July 16, 1915, the US Secretary of States, Robert Lansing, received the following message by telegraph: “Deportation of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is increasing and from harrowing reports of eyewitnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under pretext of reprisal against rebellion.” (Congressional Records, 1998: 6758).

The telegram was sent by Henry Morgenthau, Sr., US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire as an eyewitness testimony of atrocities executed against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks by the Turkish Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). The mass deportations and massacres of Armenian population living in the Eastern Ottoman Turkey was orchestrated with efforts of the CUP members in association with representatives of another movement called the Young Turks (Morgenthau, 1919).

Morgenthau dedicated Chapter XXIV of his book, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story to describe his personal account. In this chapter, Morgenthau recalls his memories by stating, “most of us believe that torture has long ceased to be an administrative and judicial measure, yet I do not believe that the darkest ages ever presented scenes’ more horrible than those which now took place all over Turkey. Nothing was sacred to the Turkish gendarmes, they ransacked churches, beat the priests into insensibility, women (even pregnant ones) were stripped naked and whipped with branches freshly cut from trees, and even crucified to mock Christian nature of Armenians” (Morgenthau, 1919: 305-306). Hence, the wrongful acts of the Turkish military were war crimes. Thus, Morgenthau’s testimony is an evidence of genocide.

At the time Henry Morgenthau wrote about these atrocious, sadistic facts of the Turkish government’s treatment, and the systematic obliteration of Armenians without using the word genocide. The reason is the term was invented 30 years later. Nevertheless, the motives and undeniable testimonials which Morgenthau described in great detail makes the entire act qualifying as a genocide as established by the United Nations Convention mentioned above.

In a letter to Cleveland Hoadley Dodge, who was an American capitalist and philanthropist, former US President Theodore Roosevelt condemned Turkey for its wrongdoings against the Armenians: “The Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and the failure to act against Turkey is to condone it . . . the failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense” (Congressional Record, 2006: 6074). Between August 1915 and August 1916, the American newspaper New York Times extensively documented the facts and events occurring in Eastern Turkey and reflected on mass murders and starvation marches of Armenians through the Der Ez-Zor desert. The American Relief Fund Committee had also been forewarned from Constantinople about systematic cruelty against Armenians and the prearranged starvation marches. One of the letters the Relief Fund Committee has received reads: “The Turkish Government is executing today the plan of scattering the Armenians of the Armenian provinces, profiting from the troubles of the European powers and from the acquiescence of Germany and Austria” (The Literary Digest, 1915: 716).

The Assyrian and Greek Genocides

Along with the deportations, starvation, and massacres of the Christian Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish gendarmes also depopulated and annihilated around 300,000 Assyrians and 700,000 Greeks between 1914-1920 (Travis, 2006). The details and validity of these genocides were communicated by the British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Turkey, Henry Morgenthau Sr., and documented by the major American newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (Travis, 2006). The same reasons that explain the US disinclination to recognize the Armenian genocide also are appropriate to use in explaining the fact that the US government has never even attempted to address the topics of the Assyrian and Greek genocides (Travis, 2006). In other words, the United States does not want to disappoint its vital ally in the Near Middle-East that has enormous strategic, military, and economic importance for American foreign affairs and interests.

The United States Response to Clashes in Washington, DC

Several hours before the brawl in front of the Turkey’s ambassador residence in Washington, DC, President Trump greeted President Erdogan to the White House and praised the partnership between Turkey and the United States. Trump emphasized on the vitality of Turkey as an ally and valued the important role that Turkey can play in the fight against terrorism. Various national news outlets have broadcast the violence perpetrated by Erdogan’s bodyguards. However, President Trump or any other official from the White House has not issued any statement on the incident, or criticized in any manner the actions of Erdogan’s security detail.

Senator John McCain has suggested that the Turkish ambassador must be “thrown the hell out of the United States of America” following the clash between Erdogan’s security personnel and peaceful protesters. John McCain also insisted that the US government should demonstrate no tolerance policy for such an incident towards its own citizens. He further suggested that the United States must demand responsibility from the Turkish government on those accountable for harming the protestors. “Somebody told them to go and beat up on these peaceful demonstrators, and I think it should have repercussions, including identifying these people and bringing charges against them,” added McCain on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

The US Department of State announced that it would work on identifying those responsible for the attacks on peaceful demonstrators. “Violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support 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,” said the Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, in a press statement.

Two US Senators, Dianne Feinstein and John McCain addressed an official letter to President Erdogan to “express their grave concern with the behavior of some members of Erdogan’s security detail outside of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence.” The letter also stressed on “alleged breakthrough of Erdogan’s security personnel into the police lines and violent attack on a small number of protestors.” As articulated in the letter, this clash was not the first of its nature committed by Erdogan’s bodyguards. In 2016, the bodyguards engaged in a violent combat with “protestors and members of the media at the Brookings Institution.” Lastly, both Senators claimed that the “actions of Erdogan’s staff violated the constitutional protections of freedom of press and freedom of assembly enjoyed by all Americans.”

The DC Metropolitan police was present as the demonstration unfolded but was not able to hold back the brutal bodyguards and the peaceful protestors from engaging into a rattle. The video captured by the witnesses shows US police had difficulty stopping the attackers and preventing the beating of demonstrators by the Turkish guards. Chief of Police Peter Nesham commented on the allegations of the Turkish guards withdrawing a firearm by stating, “that it is not something that we will tolerate here in Washington, D.C.” The D.C. police described the incident as “a brutal attack on peaceful protestors.”

The Turkey’s Response to Clashes

Similar to past injustices towards minorities on their homeland, the Turkish government was quick to maintain its denialist policy and failed to accept any responsibility of Erdogan’s security detail for the brawl and dozens left bleeding, battered and offended (despite of the evidence recorded on a video). Only two of Erdogan’s guards were detained, but later released through political immunity enjoyed by the guardians of a government representative on a foreign land.

A video was captured showing how President Erdogan observed the demonstration and continued watching as his armed security stomped and smashed through the crowd hitting unarmed elderly and women. The footage shows how one elderly man named Riza Dersimi, wriggled on the ground as a few Turkish bodyguards kicked his face, another guard attacked a woman not too far from him and threw a kick at her while the police attempted to pull them apart.

Dersimi reported, “I couldn’t get up, I tried to cover my head with my arms, I don’t know how long they were kicking me. Then I get up and I’m bleeding.”

Another photo showed how a Turkish security guard head-locked a Kurdish protestor named Ceren Borazan and tried to choke him. Borazan said that the guard threatened to kill her as he congested her “neck to the point where he popped a blood vessel in her eye.”

Arrogantly, Turkey demanded an apology from the United States government for this incident and the detention of Erdogan’s bodyguards. Turkey claims that the protestors instigated the breakout of melee as those gathered had affiliations with the Kurdish PKK and other insurgent organizations. The guards reported that the D.C. police was not able to block demonstrators from crossing a permissible distance when president Erdogan arrived; therefore, they had to take the initiative into their own hands. The Turkish embassy officials also stated that the demonstrators did not possess legal permits to protest near the territory of Turkey ambassador’s residence. The Turkish embassy argued that the response of Erdogan’s guards was the appropriate response to the demonstrators’ escalating passions.

When democracy greets a dictatorial regime, it risks of hosting danger and inflicting its citizens to risks within its own sovereignty. The victims of the May 17 confrontation with pro-Erdogan supporters and bodyguards claim that after this incident they no longer feel safety in the United States. This incident completely ramifies the Democratic nature of American government institution. Neither the White House, nor any of the U.S. Presidents have ever labeled the atrocities against Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians committed by the nationalist Turkish government officials as genocide. Turkey is a very vital geopolitical ally for the United States in the Middle Eastern settings. The partnership has regained its significance in the wake of the fight against terrorism that the United States operationalizes in the region. Therefore, harming the strong bonds with Erdogan’s government, no matter how authoritative or brutal it is both domestically as well as overseas, will be a hill that the United States will not be willing to climb. Even if it means closing an eye on the first hand recorded facts and overwhelming body of evidence provided by an extensive research and studies on past genocides.

(Sargis Karavardanyan is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Irvine.)

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