The US Supreme Court on Monday rejected Turkey’s bid to shut down lawsuits in US courts stemming from a violent brawl outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington more than five years ago that left anti-government protesters badly beaten.
The justices did not comment in turning away Turkey’s arguments that American law shields foreign countries from most lawsuits. Lower courts ruled that those protections did not extend to the events of May 16, 2017, when during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “Turkish security forces violently clashed with a crowd of protesters,” as one judge described the situation.
The Supreme Court’s action allows the lawsuits to proceed. In the lawsuits, protesters claim they were brutally punched and kicked, cursed at and greeted with slurs and throat-slashing gestures. One woman slipped in and out of consciousness and suffered seizures, and others reported post-traumatic stress, depression, concussions and nightmares, according to the complaints.
The high court had put off a decision about whether to intervene for months, asking for the Biden administration’s views on the legal issues presented.
Turkey can be sued in these circumstances, the Justice Department said in its high court filing, concluding that lower courts were correct in finding that the US ally does not have legal immunity.
Lawyers for the Turkish government had told the court that Erdogan’s security detail had the discretion to use physical force because it was protecting its head of state in a potentially dangerous situation.
They described some protesters as “supporters of a US-designated foreign terrorist organization that poses a genuine national security threat to Turkey.”
The altercation was caught on camera and led to criminal charges against some of Erdogan’s security officers and civilian supporters, two of whom pleaded guilty. Most other charges were dropped.
The violence occurred as Erdogan was returning to the ambassador’s residence after a White House visit, where he and then-President Donald Trump pledged cooperation in fighting the Islamic State group.
Erdogan remained in his car after it arrived at the ambassador’s residence while an initial skirmish took place. The lawsuits claim that he ordered a second, more violent attack. Turkey says he did no such thing.