The government of Turkey is facing a choice.
Will it defend itself in court against a civil lawsuit that alleges Turkey’s president ordered his bodyguards to beat protesters nearly two years ago on a state visit to Washington? Or will it continue to ignore the case? A decision is due this week.
Until now, Ankara has chosen the latter course. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has mocked the Washington metropolitan police, claiming they failed to protect him during his May 2017 visit, giving his security no choice but to engage.
And for months, the Turkish government refused to accept the notice of civil litigation on behalf of the five plaintiffs, whose claims include assault and battery, emotional distress and violation of an anti-terrorism law.
The government’s options changed in December, when a U.S. consular official at the embassy in Ankara served the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs with a notice, summons and complaint of the lawsuit. This began a 60-day countdown that ends on Saturday. If Turkey continues to ignore the litigation, the litigation will move forward without its representation.
The importance of the lawsuit goes beyond the claims of the plaintiffs.
To start, Turkey is a NATO ally, but it is now being sued under the same statute that victims of Iranian and Libyan terrorism have used to win judgments against those governments. Specifically, the lawsuit is predicated on two exemptions in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that allow U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments for acts of terror and personal injury.
On the surface, the melee outside the Turkish ambassador’s Washington residence on May 17, 2017, may not seem like terrorism. Lawyers for the victims, however, beg to differ.
"As a society, we were all damaged when a leader of a foreign country ordered his guards to attack Americans while they were demonstrating their views in a country that prides itself as a light unto the world," said Douglas Bregman, one of their attorneys.
His point is that the decision to order the guards to attack the protesters was an act of political violence. Another lawyer for the plaintiffs, Andreas Akaras, said the order was meant to curb the right to free expression. Erdogan was sending a message to Kurds and other protesters in Turkey, said Akaras, "I can waste you."
Admittedly this is very different than airline hijackings and suicide bombings. But it is violence nonetheless. It also shows the arrogance of Erdogan, who apparently believed that he could treat protesters in America the same way he has treated them in his own country.
Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey is moving from ally to adversary. Is it any wonder that Turkey has also helped Venezuela’s government evade U.S. sanctions on its gold?
Last March, citing a lack of evidence, the Justice Department quietly dropped criminal charges on 11 of the 14 Turkish nationals charged for assault in the 2017 incident. The Turkish government interpreted this decision as vindication.
But the standard of proof is less stringent in a civil case, and the civil lawsuit shows that Turkey’s actions are not beyond the reach of U.S. law — and is now the only avenue to provide some justice for the protesters beaten nearly two years ago.
It’s unclear at this point how Turkey will respond. Akaras says the government has asked for an extension to reply to the summons delivered in December. This could be a sign that Turkey is preparing to defend in court actions that most Americans would view as indefensible.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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