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Criminalising the Kurdish Struggle

Today, Paul Newey goes on trial for allegedly helping his son volunteer with the YPG. The British Left must stand against this abuse of anti-terror laws to criminalise the Kurdish struggle for self-determination.

Today, Paul Newey will appear in Westminster Magistrates Court charged with funding terrorism. He was first arrested in December 2019. Paul is the father of Dan Newey, an international volunteer with the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG). Paul’s crime? Sending £150 worth of late wages to his son through PayPal. 

Dan’s brother, Adam, a university student, was also taken in for questioning at the same time. Last Friday, he was arrested and placed under investigation — with charges likely to follow. It is just the latest in a long crackdown by the British authorities against not only those who support the Kurdish struggle, but their families as well.

It’s worth remembering who Britain’s anti-terrorism laws are being used against in this case. The YPG is responsible for spearheading the campaign against ISIS and securing its defeat, at the cost of 11,000 lives and 22,000 wounded. They are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), forming the self-defence arm of a wider progressive political experiment known as the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES) – a society based on direct democracy, ecology and women’s liberation. 

The UK government has long criminalised the Kurdish struggle through raids on the homes of the British Kurdish community, harassment at the border and arrests of YPG volunteers. More recently there have been attempts to apply a blanket designation declaring North-East Syria a terror hotspot that would make it a terrorism offence for British citizens to visit the region. 

These measures are a result of the pressure and influence of the Turkish government. In 2017 Turkish president Erdogan signed a £100 million fighter jet deal with Theresa May. This was soon followed by the Prime Minister publicly describing Kurdish forces as “terrorists” during the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria in 2019.

Boris Johnson, like Trump, declared that the Turkish state had so-called “legitimate security concerns” in the region, exchanging this statement for post-Brexit influence in NATO and other trade deals. Turkey’s centrality is not surprising, after all the largest US military base outside of the US itself is in the south of Turkey, comprising NATO’s eastern flank.

The UK government will always strive to keep the US happy – even when they disagree on this or that foreign policy objective, they will unite in the interest of big business contracts (not least arms sales), the unity of NATO, and continuing the fight to destroy any socialist democracy in the Middle East.

The Turkish state argued that it was fighting terrorism when invading Northern Syria. It claimed that the democratic, ecological and feminist orientation of the SDF/YPG meant that they were the same as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and therefore terrorists. The invasion was only halted because an unprecedented number of people took to the streets in support of the people of Northern Syria. 

But the ‘counter-terrorism’ collaboration between the Turkish state and the UK goes deeper, and culminated in the listing of the PKK on the list of terrorist organisations in 2001 – an action which was undertaken without any evidence of terrorist activity. The Turkish and British state have since equated almost all activities which advocate Kurdish self-determination as terrorist activities.

Successive British governments have provided evidence to domestic and international legal cases against Kurdish activists charged often with political crimes. Recently, Belgium’s highest court ruled that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation but a party to a conflict. That ruling made clear the falsification of evidence provided by the British government as well as the Turkish and US governments over many years.

There is much to say about the so-called ‘Global War on Terror,’ but it is clear that today’s court case is a further attempt to delegitimise and criminalise the Kurdish freedom struggle. It is part of a wider environment which the current UK government desperately wants to expand – from the disproportionate treatment of the Stansted 18 to the Jamaica 50 and the Windrush scandal. The stripping of British-born peoples’ citizenship seems to be the tip of the iceberg. 

These abuses of terrorism law should make all progressives, democrats and socialists, concerned and angry. At the beginning of January it was revealed that the government’s anti-radicalisation program Prevent, a profound failure in every regard, placed more or less every left-of-Labour political organisation, alongside a number of anti-nuclear, environmentalist, anti-arms trade and other single-issue organisations, in a document designed to provide school workers with information to help identify signs of radicalisation.

This document includes openly far-right and Nazi organisations alongside the symbols of committed anti-fascists and the YPG and YPJ flags in an apparent claim of like-for-like. The police response was to claim that not all groups and symbols were listed to indicate terrorist activity, and the document was only intended to boost understanding for school workers.

This is a claim which beggars belief. The inclusion of progressive, socialist and activist groups and symbols that in no way suggest radicalisation alongside far-right groups and symbols, without any differentiation whatsoever, will make things more confusing – not less. There is no doubt that the document’s designers want school workers to report children with left-wing politics.

The British state continues to criminalise and attempt to prosecute international supporters for their solidarity work with the Kurdish struggle, and alleged volunteering with the YPG/YPJ in particular. From prosecuting those they allege to have fought, to harassing civil volunteers and solidarity organisers, to, now, harassing and attempting to prosecute family members, the British state has done its best to push the Kurdish freedom movement beyond the line of acceptable political association.

Meanwhile, millions across the world are recognising the movement’s profound democratic, ecological and feminist political project. In October, there were inspiring demonstrations worldwide against the Turkish invasion of North-East Syria, with more than 20,000 on the streets of London alone.

Never mind the fact that every terrorism charge for association with the YPG/YPJ has failed, the British state continues to attempt to appease its Turkish allies. In doing so it aims to discourage British citizens and residents from standing in solidarity with, supporting and learning from this inspiring movement.

With this example in mind it becomes possible to see how the criminalisation of Dan Newey and his family is the thin end of an authoritarian wedge, one which seeks to abuse terrorism law to criminalise all of those fighting for a freer, more equal and truly democratic society.

The treatment of the Kurdish struggle by international governments exposes the limits of their democracies under capitalism. They praise military sacrifice in the wake of ISIS, but attempt to separate it from the emancipatory democratic and socialist politics these sacrifices sought to defend. That is the hypocrisy behind the criminalisation of the Kurdish struggle.

It is time for all of us to stand up against such abuses, and, indeed, the whole failed paradigm represented by this legislation. This is all of our fight. 

About the Author

Elif Sarican is an anthropologist, writer and organiser. She is an activist in the Kurdish Women’s Movement and an adviser to the Freedom For Öcalan Trade Union campaign.

Nik Matheou is a solidarity organiser with the Kurdish Freedom Movement and a researcher at the University of London.