The Cable

Exclusive: Brookings Threatened To Cancel Speech by Turkish Leader

One of the Washington's best known think tanks threatened to call off the speech because Turkish security personnel were shoving and kicking Western and Turkish journalists and protesters.

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The Brookings Institution, one of the world’s best-known think tanks, threatened to cancel a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan after his security personnel pushed, threatened, and kicked both Turkish and Western journalists and protesters in front of the organization’s Washington headquarters on Thursday.

In a tense exchange, Brookings President Strobe Talbott told a Turkish official that the organization was prepared to call off the visit even though Erdogan’s motorcade was already en route to the event. The cancellation threat has not previously been reported.  

The official helped intervene with Erdogan’s guards, temporarily preventing a tense situation from getting worse, and the speech went ahead as planned. The violence and chaos resumed, however, as soon as the Turkish leader departed.

Erdogan’s speech had been heavily publicized and attracted an overflow crowd, so a last-minute cancellation would have been an embarrassment for both Brookings and the Turkish leader, who had hoped to use this week’s visit to Washington to rebut criticism of his increasingly authoritarian policies back home. Instead, the trip will be clouded by photos and videos of his guards — members of a security system already accused of trying to muzzle journalists and political opponents — literally clashing with reporters and protesters.

In a statement to Foreign Policy, Brookings spokesperson Gail Chalef said Talbott “took up the matter of the Turkish security agents’ behavior toward our guests at the event.”

“Following a stiff exchange between Mr. Talbott and Turkish officials, the security agents complied with our demand to stop their actions,” she added.

A spokesperson for the Turkish embassy didn’t reply to an email seeking comment.

The chaos outside Brookings erupted roughly an hour before Erdogan was scheduled to begin his speech when some of Erdogan’s bodyguards physically removed a Turkish journalist from the building. A Western reporter who tried to film the altercation was shoved and then kicked by a guard.

Matters deteriorated from there, with the Turkish guards grabbing the arms of a female protester and throwing her to the ground while other members of Erdogan’s security detail got into a shoving match with a Brookings employee.  A Foreign Policy reporter and others holding cameras outside the event were also scolded by Turkish security and told to stop filming even though they were standing on a public sidewalk.  One cameraman was chased across the street by Turkish guards before a police officer stopped the guards from chasing him.

Some of the small group of protesters who had gathered across from Brookings — and were chanting that Erdogan was a “baby killer” — also seemed to be spoiling for a fight. At one point, several of the protesters flipped over their signs so they would function as sticks and started to make their way towards the Turkish guards. Washington police officers blocked traffic and physically separated the two sides.

Later, a police officer angrily confronted several Turkish security guards in the middle of the street, telling them, “you’re part of the problem, you guys need to control yourselves and let these people protest.” Another Turkish security official pulled his colleague away after he began arguing with the officer. Other members of Erdogan’s team stood in front of the Brookings building, motioning for the protesters to come closer, and making obscene gestures.

The chaos outside Brookings led several critics to accuse Erdogan of trying to use the same harsh tactics he employed within Turkey against Americans gathered in the heart of the U.S. capitol.

“We have increasingly seen disrespect for basic human rights and press freedom in Turkey,” said Thomas Burr, the president of the National Press Club. “Erdogan doesn’t get to export such abuse.”

During his speech, Erdogan was unapologetic about his treatment of Turkish journalists, dozens of whom have been imprisoned by his regime. The Turkish government also seized control of the country’s largest newspaper recently after accusing it of maintaining overly close ties to a one-time Erdogan ally now charged with attempting to overthrow the government.

Most of the journalists, Erdogan said, had ties to terrorist organizations, though press advocates around the world believe such allegations to be groundless and the Turkish leader offered no evidence to support his sweeping characterization.

After Erdogan left the building, a white van pulled up outside of Brookings and let out a handful of Turkish men who began handing out pro-Erdogan t-shirts that read: “Dear Syrian Refugees You Are Not Alone. You have Erdogan.” The people passing out the shirts, signs, and Turkish flags declined to say who they were or who had paid for the merchandise. When a Foreign Policy reporter asked if they worked for the Turkish government, one of the men flipped his middle finger and threatened a fight.

Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images

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