Erdoğan’s bodyguards: Thugs with impunity attack protesters at home and abroad

Numerous instances have shown how Erdoğan’s bodyguards take matters into their own hands in punishing critics and opponents.

By Abdullah Bozkurt, Middle East Forum

Turkish taxpayers had to foot a 251 million Turkish lira bill for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s protective detail in January, marking a staggering increase of 151 percent compared to the same month last year, which was recorded at 100 million lira.

The substantial bill corresponds to the combined monthly minimum wages for nearly 15,000 workers in Turkey, where many families are struggling to make ends meet amid worsening economic conditions.

Some of Erdoğan’s ever-expanding team of bodyguards, notorious for beating civilians during the president’s visits at home and abroad, have faced criminal charges in the past for their conduct in foreign countries.

They have even been the subject of arrest warrants in the US while enjoying complete impunity in Turkey, where the rule of law has been suspended and fundamental rights and freedoms severely restricted.

Erdoğan, a repressive ruler who has governed Turkey for the last 22 years, increasingly relies on his own protective detail and has become more wary of his own people.

By some accounts, he has developed a fear of assassination. Due to his all-encompassing distrust, his bodyguards ensure that no member of the military, police or other security institution carries a loaded weapon during Erdoğan’s visits around the country.

To secure the full and continuous allegiance of his bodyguards, Erdoğan ensures that they live comfortably and receive more financial compensation than others.

Data obtained by Nordic Monitor from Turkish police records show that the government spent 1.1 billion lira in 2023 to protect Erdoğan, an all-time high.

A quarter of that was spent in January 2024, according to official figures, indicating that a new record will likely be set by the end of the year.

The figure does not include other public expenditures to support Erdoğan’s protective detail, such as secret discretionary funding and contributions from military sources and public agencies mobilized to provide logistical services for his protection.

The exact number of members of Erdoğan’s protective detail is unknown, and the government has not been forthcoming with the figures when asked by parliament, which decides on funding government expenditures, including the salaries of Erdoğan’s bodyguards.

However, it is estimated to be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. By one extreme, unconfirmed account, he has some 5,000 people in his protective detail.

Erdoğan does not travel without being accompanied by an army of bodyguards and a mammoth fleet of vehicles. He even takes his own armored cars abroad, using Turkish military cargo planes when he visits foreign countries.

In the past, he has skipped foreign visits simply because of limitations imposed by host countries on the number of bodyguards he was allowed to bring.

The core group within Erdoğan’s bodyguard team is composed of committed Islamists who provide close protection for the president. Some of them have been with Erdoğan since his years as mayor of Istanbul.

They are willing to take matters to the extreme, break rules and show little regard for laws in Turkey and abroad. Ali Erdoğan, the president’s nephew, is one of the leaders of the group, which has become notorious for escalating matters on his uncle’s behalf. The entire team has been led by Muhsin Köse since 2012.

There have been numerous instances that showed how Erdoğan’s bodyguards take matters into their own hands in punishing critics and opponents of their boss during travel in Turkey and abroad.

The conduct displayed by Erdoğan’s bodyguards has created trouble overseas. For instance, Erdoğan’s 15 bodyguards were indicted and were the subjects of arrest warrants in the US for attacking protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in May 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Approximately 20 demonstrators protesting the policies of President Erdoğan, who was visiting Washington for a White House meeting with then-US president Donald Trump on May 16, 2017, were confronted by agitated Erdoğan supporters and subsequently attacked by the Turkish president’s bodyguards near Sheridan Circle, across from the Turkish ambassador’s residence.

A video clip from the scene showed Erdoğan apparently giving the order for his security detail to attack the protesters and watching it unfold.

The video shows that the pro-Erdoğan group, including Turkish security force members, rushed forward and broke through the police line, which had been separating the two groups. None of the protesters advanced to meet the attackers. Some of the protesters immediately fell to the ground, with Erdoğan’s civilian supporters and bodyguards continuing to strike and kick them.

Other protesters attempted to flee from the attackers and run away from the residence. However, Erdoğan’s civilian supporters and Turkish security forces chased the protesters and violently attacked many of them.

On the same day, two hours after the attack on the protestors, Erdoğan’s bodyguards engaged in yet another attack on a single protestor, Lacy MacAuley, who was holding an anti-Erdoğan banner behind the police line in front of the Turkish Embassy.

While she was standing there and chanting slogans, a group from Erdoğan’s protective detail emerged from a van and surrounded MacAuley. One of the bodyguards placed her hand over MacAuley’s mouth, another aggressively grabbed her wrist and another snatched her sign, crumpled it and threw it to the ground. Ultimately, local law enforcement officers intervened to end the altercation.

Victims in both cases launched a civil suit against Turkey in the US District Court for the District of Columbia; the cases are still pending. Turkey attempted to stop the lawsuits by invoking the sovereign immunity clause but failed.

In June 2017, after investigations by the US Department of State, the US Secret Service and the Metropolitan Police Department, 15 bodyguards — Ahmet Karabay, Feride Kayasan, Gokhan Yildirim, Hamza Yurteri, Harritten Eren, Ismail Dalkiran, Ismail Ergunduz, Lutfu Kutluca, Mamet Samman, Muhsin Kose, Mustafa Sumercan, Server Erken, Tugay Erken, Turgut Akar and Yusuf Aya — were indicted by a grand jury.

However, a year later, US authorities dropped the charges against 11 of the 15 bodyguards, citing a lack of robust evidence that would pass scrutiny in a US court. Two Turkish nationals, Eyüp Yıldırım of Manchester, New Jersey, and Sinan Narin of McLean, Virginia, who were involved in the altercation, pleaded guilty to assault and were sentenced to a year and a day in prison in April 2018.

President Erdoğan defended his bodyguards and said, “They didn’t do anything [to the protesters]. In addition to that, yesterday they detained two of our brothers who intervened. … They issued arrest warrants for 12 of my security officers. What kind of law is this? What kind of legal system is this?”

He even sent then-foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to visit to the two convicted Turks — Yıldırım and Narin — in prison to show his government’s solidarity with the attackers.

The altercation was not the first time that Erdoğan’s bodyguards had stirred up violence in the US capital. Members of Erdoğan’s security team had a run-in with demonstrators a year earlier outside the Brookings Institution, where Erdoğan was giving a speech.

Brookings wrote on its website that Erdoğan’s bodyguards had “behaved unacceptably — they roughed up protesters outside the building and tried to drag away ‘undesired’ journalists, an approach typical of the Russians or the Chinese.”

Similar excessive use of force was also displayed during Erdoğan’s visits to New York to attend UN meetings. In 2011, when Erdoğan visited the city to participate in the UN General Assembly, his bodyguards quarreled with UN security personnel. At least one UN security officer’s injuries required emergency medical treatment.

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In September 2014 Adem Yavuz Arslan, a US-based Turkish journalist, was kicked by Erdoğan’s bodyguards while he was covering a meeting between Erdoğan and then US vice president Joe Biden at the Peninsula Hotel in New York City on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Erdoğan’s nephew Ali, one of his bodyguards, swore at the journalist who was waiting along with colleagues in the hotel lobby, and forced him out of the hotel. Later, two other bodyguards approached him on the street and kicked him. “They told me to go with them and threatened me, saying, ‘You don’t have the right to live,'” Yavuz recalled.

Erdoğan’s bodyguards attempted to attack another US-based Turkish journalist, Ali Aslan, who was also with the group of journalists in the same venue. He was rescued from the wrath of Erdoğan’s bodyguards by local police officers, who took him to safety.

After the violent scuffles in the US, Germany warned Turkey not to send the bodyguards who were implicated in the incidents during Erdoğan’s US visit to attend the G20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017.

Germany’s foreign ministry spokesman, Martin Schaefer, said: “I have reason to expect that these people, who have been incriminated by the American criminal justice (system), will not step onto German soil in the foreseeable future, including during the G20 summit.”

German police also introduced a new measure that would restrict Erdoğan’s own security personnel to protection inside the hotel only and would allow them to “in no way meddle in the security around the hotel.”

On October 4, 2015 Erdoğan’s guards got into a fight with Belgian police at Brussels’s Place Stéphanie in a dispute over who was responsible for the Turkish president’s security as 3,000 people welcomed Erdoğan near his hotel.

A second fight broke out the next day at Val Duchesse Chateau in Brussels when the two sides clashed over who was responsible for checking the rooms Erdoğan would visit.

Punches were thrown, and one of the Turkish bodyguards elbowed a member of the Belgian VIP protection service before the Turk was brought to the ground and calm was restored. According to local media, the incidents stemmed from a lack of respect shown by the Turkish bodyguards.

On February 4, 2016 Erdoğan’s bodyguards attacked Kurdish protesters and those who supported them during an official two-day visit to Ecuador. At the protest, one of Erdoğan’s bodyguards broke the nose of Ecuadorean member of parliament Diego Vintimilla.

Three female protesters were thrown out of the National Higher Studies Institute building, where Erdoğan was about to speak. The incident prompted Ecuadorian authorities to rebuke the Turkish delegation, with President Rafael Correa denouncing the incident as unacceptable.

Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Fernando Yepez summoned the Turkish ambassador in Quito, urging him to explain the violence, while Interior Minister Jose Serrano said police had requested that the bodyguards involved in the incident surrender their passports. However, Erdoğan and his bodyguards had already left the country before the police could take action.

In July 2018 security personnel from the Turkish Embassy in Pretoria pounced on members of the Turkey Solidarity Network (TSN) in South Africa who were protesting the Turkish government’s human rights abuses ahead of Erdoğan’s visit to the mission.

“We were very peaceful, yet firmly picketing about Erdoğan’s dictatorial rule. Suddenly, security personnel emerged from the embassy and attacked us. I was kicked in the face, and I’m bleeding right now as you can see,” said Majesty Mnyandu, interim chairperson of TSN, to local media. President Erdoğan was visiting Johannesburg to attend the tenth summit of BRICS, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

In another encounter in July 2019, the security team of Erdoğan, who was on a two-day visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, had an altercation with the local police in Sarajevo after Erdoğan’s bodyguards refused to hand over their weapons upon arrival at the airport and clashed with the local police. “They were aggressive and behaved as if they were in their own country,” chief of Bosnian border police Zoran Galic said. “They did not respect our laws and deserved to be arrested.”

Erdoğan’s bodyguards have been acting with total impunity in Turkey, unlawfully detaining and beating his critics and opponents with total disregard for the rule of law. There have been dozens of such cases reported throughout the years across Turkey, and not a single bodyguard has been held to account for excessive use of force or brutality.

In one rare case a Turkish man who received brutal treatment from Erdoğan’s bodyguards managed to get some justice from the rights court in Strasbourg after his efforts in Turkey had failed.

Necati Yılmaz, a Turkish citizen who was beaten by Erdoğan’s bodyguards in April 2007 in Turkey’s Trabzon province after his public criticism of Erdoğan, filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights on violation of his fundamental rights.

The European court ruled in 2013 against Turkey and found that Erdoğan’s bodyguards had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits torture and degrading, inhuman treatment.

In one notorious case, it was Erdoğan himself who used violence against a protester. As the prime minister in May 2014, he was visiting the town of Soma in the aftermath of the death of 301 miners in one of the worst industrial disasters in the country’s history.

Erdoğan’s offensive rhetoric targeted people mourning the death of the Soma miners when he said death is “part of the mining business” during a condolence speech.

That prompted protests, and some even booed him. Unsettled, Erdoğan turned and told one protestor, “If you insult the prime minister, you’ll get slapped.” He then chased some protestors into a store and personally punched a young man named Taner Kuruca inside a market. His bodyguards started beating Kuruca after Erdoğan’s first punch.

The video recorded on a cell phone revealed Erdoğan screaming at protestors and saying to Kuruca, “Why are you running away from me, Israeli sperm,” using a vile antisemitic phrase in Turkish.

Apparently distressed over the incident, Kuruca had to change his statement three times under duress. However, the video footage clearly showed Erdoğan punching him in the face.

In March 2014 a Turkish national named Caner Oruç protested Erdoğan while the president’s convoy was driving through the Silivri district of Istanbul. Outraged, Erdoğan pointed the man out to his bodyguards from the bus he was traveling in.

Seven bodyguards grabbed Oruç and forcibly took him into an apartment building in the area where he was severely beaten. Oruç was hospitalized and placed under observation in the hospital following a brain tomography.

In April 2019 Sertuğ Sürenoğlu, a lawyer, was beaten up by President Erdoğan’s security detail in Istanbul after complaining that the presidential motorcade was holding up traffic.

He claimed Erdoğan’s bodyguards put him in a car, where he was beaten for two hours. He was forced to sign a statement saying he had insulted Erdoğan before being handed over to the police for formal detention. Sürenoğlu was later released but put under house arrest by an Istanbul court.

In Erdoğan’s repressive regime, his bodyguards often act more like thugs with no regard for the law, and they appear to be rewarded for such behavior with more money in their pockets while enjoying total immunity from any criminal prosecution.