District of Columbia police chief Peter Newsham said Wednesday that diplomatic immunity may limit what the city can do to hold Turkish officials accountable for their role in a Tuesday attack on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador's residence.
"There could be a diplomatic immunity issue," he said at a midday press conference.
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The attack came during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's trip to the United States. Video captured by Voice of America shows protesters and Erdogan supporters gathering outside the Turkish ambassador's residence ahead of Erdogan's stop there.
The first altercation caught on video involved an Erdogan supporter in a yellow shirt shoving a woman to the ground during a verbal confrontation. The man in the yellow shirt then fought with a protester in a blue shirt. The fight spread through the crowd before D.C. police were able to break it up. The Erdogan supporter in the yellow shirt could later be seen with blood flowing down his face.
By the time Erdogan and his entourage—including armed bodyguards—arrived, video showed that the police had managed to separate the two sides, though tensions remained high. Things boiled over when a man in a suit broke through the police line and sprinted across the street to attack the protester in blue. At that point, police appeared to lose control of the situation as Erdogan supporters rushed through the police line and begin beating protesters.
— Amerika'nın Sesi (@VOATurkish) May 17, 2017
Voice of America reported that some of the individuals who attacked the protesters were Erdogan's bodyguards.
The protesters who were attacked held signs advocating for the release of Selahattin Demirtas, a Kurdish opposition leader jailed by Erdogan last year.
Erdogan's regime was rebuked harshly by international election observers for holding a key election this year under a legal framework that was "inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum" after an earlier crackdown on opposition forces and the media.
"Yesterday afternoon we witnessed what appeared to be a brutal attack on peaceful protesters at the Turkish ambassador's residence," Newsham said. "As a result of the assault, eleven people and one police officer were injured. Nine of those who were injured were taken to a local hospital where they were treated and released."
Local police have arrested two people as a result of the attack. Forty-nine-year-old Ayten Necmi of Woodside, N.Y., was arrested for aggravated assault and 42-year-old Jalal Kheirabaoi of Fairfax, Va., was arrested for assaulting a police officer.
Newsham added the Secret Service intervened in the situation but did not have details on whether they made arrests. He said federal agencies are cooperating with D.C. police in their investigation.
"I'm very encouraged about some earlier conversations that I had with my federal partners at the State Department and at the U.S. Secret Service who have pledged to me to be fully cooperative in assisting holding those folks who were responsible accountable," he said.
Asked for comment on the incident, the White House referred the Washington Free Beacon to the State Department, which said it was communicating its concerns to the Turkish government.
"We are concerned by the violent incidents involving protesters and Turkish security personnel Tuesday evening," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said. "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."
Chief Newsham said the attack on protesters was not acceptable and that his department would do everything it can to hold the attackers accountable.
"We are going to pursue everything that's within our legal power to hold the folks that were responsible for their actions," he said.