U.S. prosecutors have quietly dropped charges against 11 of the 15 members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail who were criminally indicted in an assault on protesters during a visit by Erdogan to Washington.
Criminal charges related to the incident against four of the bodyguards were dismissed last November while the indictment against the seven others was withdrawn February 14, the day before outgoing Secretary of State Rex TIllerson visited Turkey to meet with Erdogan in a bid to mend ties between the two NATO allies.
The timing has fueled speculation that the decision to dismiss the indictment was made as a goodwill gesture to Erdogan, who saw the charges against his security personnel as an affront and called the indictment “a complete scandal.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the department had no role in the decision.
“That was entirely coming out of the Department of Justice,” Nauert told reporters, dismissing reports that Tillerson had discussed the issue with Erdogan during their meeting in Ankara.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.
Problem with evidence
A government official familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to drop the charges was made for “evidentiary reasons.”
It came after the Turkish government raised questions about the identity of some of the 15 security guards named in the indictment, the official said.
“The [Turkish] government claimed that some of the people were not on the scene, and in some cases they were verified,” the official said. “We have to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, and a decision was made to dismiss the charges for evidentiary reasons.”
WATCH: Anti-Erdogan Protesters Say Bodyguards Attacked Them
Another person close to the case said that during the protest, at least three of the indicted security guards were outside Washington. One was at a mall outside the city, a second on a Turkish air force plane at a nearby airport and a third in Istanbul.
“It would be embarrassing if they charged people who were not there,” the person said, requesting anonymity.
March 2017 incident
The fight broke out after a small group of demonstrators gathered near the Turkish ambassador’s house shortly after Erdogan met with President Donald Trump at the White House on May 16, 2017.
Video of the brawl recorded by a VOA journalist showed security guards in dark suits and combat boots pushing, shoving and kicking the protesters, some of whom were carrying Kurdish flags.
According to prosecutors, the attackers included members of the Turkish diplomatic delegation as well as Erdogan’s supporters, who had warned the police that there would be violence if the protest continued.
“You need to take them; if you don’t, I will,” Erdogan security guard Gokhan Yildirim allegedly told a police officer on the scene.
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A grand jury later indicted 19 people, including 15 of Erdogan’s security guards, on charges of conspiracy to commit a crime of violence, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Most of the security personnel were indicted on additional charges.
Charges against four other security guards are pending. The government official would not say whether prosecutors will seek to dismiss those charges as well.
The security guards were not arrested.
Two Turkish-Americans involved in the melee pleaded guilty to felony assault charges in December and are scheduled to be sentenced April 5. They face one year in prison. Their lawyers did not respond to requests for comments.
Assault charges against two Canadian citizens of Turkish ancestry, who were accused of attacking the protesters, are still pending. They’ve not been arrested, and it remains unclear whether they’ll be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.
VOA’S State Department correspondent Nike Ching and researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.