Aso Kamali, Mark Campbell and Arazw Abdullah outside Westminster Magistrates Court, January 2024. Photo: John Lubbock.
On the evening of 26 November 2023, Turkan, a Kurdish woman in her 60s, received a phone call telling her around 50 police officers had turned up to the Kurdish Community Centre in Harringay, north London, and tried to force entry.
“They [the police] said: ‘You’re doing an event which is not legal in the UK’,” Turkan told Novara Media. “I said: ‘What do you mean it’s not legal? It’s a cultural event, every year we’re celebrating – local police is aware of that.’”
The event in question was an annual commemoration of the founding of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978 – the start of a revolutionary uprising against the Turkish state which had oppressed the Kurds since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923. But according to the Turkish state, the PKK is a terrorist organisation.
The police were ultimately prevented from entering the centre and forced to leave the premises. But community members are nonetheless concerned that the attempted raid is part of a crackdown on leftwing Kurds and their supporters by British authorities at the insistence of the Turkish state.
A grey area.
PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has inspired Kurds around the world. Abandoning orthodox Marxist-Leninist state socialism, he advocates for a loosely organised independent Kurdish state and is influenced by libertarian and anarchist ideas. Now 74, he’s been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999.
“For nearly three years, he [Öcalan] has had no communication with the outside world,” says Aso Kamali, co-chair of the Kurdish People’s Assembly Britain. “We don’t know if he is dead or alive. His incarceration is symbolic and indicative of how activists can expect to be treated.”
There’s a grey area, however, where sympathy with Öcalan’s ideology meets unequivocal support for the PKK’s armed struggle. And while the PKK has been listed as a terrorist group by the UK since 2001, the proscription of support for the organisation and its symbols isn’t consistently applied by British police. So why the crackdown now?
Just days before the police raid on the Kurdish Community Centre, UK defence secretary Grant Shapps visited Turkey to agree a deal “for a closer defence relationship between the two nations”.
Turkey is a key strategic ally for the UK, as well as a long-time buyer of British arms. But since Brexit, Turkey has become an ever-more crucial trading partner, with the UK signing an £100m deal in 2017 for BAE Systems to support the development of Turkish fighter jets used in Turkey’s brutal war against the Kurds.
For Kamali, it’s entirely to be expected that the “financial headlock” in which Turkey has the UK would have consequences for Kurds living here.
“The arms deal with Turkey doesn’t fill the economic blackhole left by leaving the EU, Covid, and other economic stressors,” she says. “But it’s certainly enough to make them [the UK] increase hostility towards the Kurdish diaspora community in order to appease the Turkish government.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Turkey’s made related demands of NATO member states. Turkey stalled on ratifying Sweden’s bid to join NATO, saying Sweden was giving refuge to Kurdish militants and needed to do more to crack down on PKK supporters. Turkey could well have made this demand of the UK in exchange for ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership.
Turkan agrees with Kamali’s analysis. “We believe it [the attempted raid] was a message to the Turkish government: we went there [to the Kurdish Community Centre], we tried to stop the event, but there was too much resistance,” she says of the attempted police raid.
This isn’t the only example of hostility from the British state towards Kurds and their supporters in recent weeks – nor the ambiguity over what counts as support for the PKK.
In April 2022, just days after Turkey began its ground incursion against the PKK as part of Operation Claw-Lock, British activists Mark Campbell and Arazw Abdullah were charged under the Terrorism Act 2000 for carrying items that “aroused reasonable suspicion” that they were “members or supporters of a proscribed organisation”. This week, the pair were found guilty and given conditional discharges for 12 months for carrying the flags.
During the trial, Campbell’s solicitor argued that the flag wasn’t solely the flag of the PKK, but symbolised the wider Kurdish struggle and were also used by other Kurdish groups, like the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (ERNK). Campbell said he had picked up the flag, which had been brought by others, to make a point about the criminalisation of support for the PKK. “How can you have a solution to this conflict when you criminalise one half of it?”, Campbell told Novara Media.
The prosecution argued a simple internet search showed the flag in question as the one most commonly associated with the PKK. Campbell himself may not have helped his case by writing an article for Kurdish website MedyaNews entitled: ‘Why I held up a large PKK flag on a London demonstration and got myself arrested’.
As others noted at the trial, it was only those who were told to remove the flag and ignored a police warning who were charged – not those who brought the banner in the first place. Margaret Owen, a 91-year-old pro-Kurdish activist who attended the trial, told Novara Media she’d not only posed with the same flag, but had visited Rojava (the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) and taken photos with Kurdish fighters.
“I’m not hearing boots on my front steps, bangs at my door. Why am I not arrested and charged as others are?”, she said.
The British government doesn’t really think Kurds who are sympathetic to the PKK are a security threat, of course. Nor does it care all that much about the conflict between the PKK and Turkey. What it does care about is Turkey as a trade partner and key ally. To bolster this relationship, it’s likely authorities will ramp up the enforcement of laws proscribing the PKK and its explicit support. Criminalisation depends, at least to some extent, on how far British Kurds want to push those limits.