How the U.S. Could Prosecute the Turkish Guards Who Beat Protesters in Washington as Erdogan Watched

Turkish Embassy protest
A group of anti-Erdogan Kurds shout slogans at a group of pro-Erdogan demonstrators. Turkish security officers were filmed beating up protesters after the two groups clashed on May 16. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The scenes of violence Tuesday outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., have sparked a debate over what the U.S. can do to prosecute foreign diplomats and their entourage.

Images from the protests showed men in suits believed to be part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security detail beating protesters, even as they laid on the ground. A video released Thursday also showed Erdogan stopping to look on at the fighting before disappearing into the embassy.

Amerika’nın Sesi Özel: #Erdoğan #Washington'daki olayların bitmesini aracında bekledi #amerikaninsesi

— Amerika'nın Sesi (@VOATurkish) May 18, 2017

In the wake of the clashes, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham told the press: "We are going to pursue everything that's within our legal power to hold the folks that were responsible accountable for their actions."

"There could be a diplomatic immunity issue," he said, "but that won't prevent us from doing what we need to do."

Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, foreign officials enjoy immunity from prosecution in the countries where they exercise their administrative and technical duties. The right to immunity can be waived, although it is unlikely Turkey would agree to this.

In fact, the violent behavior Turkish security officials displayed is not unprecedented. In March 2016, they roughed up protesters and journalists outside the Brookings Institute building in D.C., where Erdogan was invited to give a speech.

According to Ashley Deeks, an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia and a former assistant legal adviser at the State Department who wrote in The Washington Post about the catch-22 of enforcing diplomatic immunity, the U.S. could also be looking into declaring the officials involved in the brawl "persona non grata," or suing the Turkish Embassy guards.

One of the injured protesters appealed to President Donald Trump for justice in a Twitter post showing her gripped in a headlock by one of the guards.

Dear @POTUS I'm being attackd in this photo. I was assaulted by this man, strangled for protesting. Please help me find & prosecute this man

— Ceren Borazan (@CerenBorazan) May 18, 2017

Ceren Borazan, a Kurdish woman who came from Turkey to the U.S. in 2013, gave further details on Facebook, claiming the guard threatened to kill her and held her so tightly that a blood vessel in her eye burst.

The U.S. State Department expressed concerns at the way Turkish security officials reacted to the protests. "We are concerned by the violent incidents involving protestors and Turkish security personnel Tuesday evening. Violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest," a statement published Wednesday read.

The State Department added that the concerns had been communicated to the Turkish government "in the strongest possible terms."

Senator John McCain also condemned the violence:

Turkish security guards' attack on peaceful protesters this wk was a despicable display of thuggery & repression - absolutely unacceptable

— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 18, 2017