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The betrayal of British Kurds Slayers of Isis are being criminalised

Justice for the Kurds. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Justice for the Kurds. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


January 18, 2024   5 mins

This week, two activists are facing trial under the UK’s Terror Act for the “crime” of holding a flag at a demonstration. But this wasn’t a Palestinian flag, which former Home Secretary Suella Braverman has said could be a criminal offence. It was Kurdish.

Though troubling, this assault on free expression is far from an isolated incident. Over the past year, anti-terror police have arrested, charged and harassed a number of British volunteers who joined the Kurdish-led, UK-backed fight against Isis, along with their relatives. I have been detained and questioned for hours by anti-terror police on the UK border due to my reporting on the Kurdish issue. The Kurdish community faces regular police harassment and home raids.

“It’s a freedom of expression issue,” says Mark Campbell, a photojournalist and one of the activists on trial for holding a flag associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK, at a demonstration in London. “But it’s also a highly political issue — because that flag represents Kurdish peoples’ struggle for basic human and political rights in Turkey.”

Beritan, another Kurdish activist, will join Campbell in the dock. “Why should the British government be afraid of me, or of Kurds?” she asks. “Our flag is the symbol of a peaceful Kurdish nation, and a [political] programme of education, equality and democracy for all. Is this a danger to Britain?”

Given that the West relied on the armed Kurdish movement, spearheaded by the PKK, to lead the ground campaign against Isis, the Kurds might be forgiven for expecting a fair hearing. The British authorities had no complaints when more than 10,000 Kurdish fighters gave their lives to rid the world of the Isis caliphate. Or when, backed by US airstrikes, they saved the Yazidi minority from genocide. But Western policy-makers have short memories — and the Kurds have been all too often betrayed by their nominal Western allies. Today, the UK Kurdish community remains criminalised and subjected to what its representatives describe as discriminatory, illiberal treatment in order to appease Turkey’s increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who views them as a political threat.

Will Campbell and Beritan be let off the hook? The UK’s Supreme Court has previously ruled against protestors who displayed a PKK flag, arguing that the infringement of the right to freedom of expression was outweighed by the need to deny the Kurdish movement “a projected air of legitimacy“. But a number of other high-profile anti-Kurdish trials have collapsed, including those targeting UK volunteers in the fight against Isis. In one case, UK police sentenced former soldier Dan Burke with terror offences for supporting the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight. Both the father and 19-year-old brother of another volunteer, Dan Newey, were also charged with terror offences after the father sent Newey ÂŁ150.

“The British state has repeatedly contradicted its own foreign policy,” Newey tells me. “While simultaneously funding, arming, training and working alongside the [Kurdish-led] Syrian Democratic Forces, the UK government charged internationalist volunteers [in the SDF] with ridiculous terror offences in order to appease Turkey.”

Burke spent 10 months on remand in jail without ever going to trial to clear his name. He suffered the humiliation of being labelled “Jihadi Dan” despite devoting his life to the struggle against radical Islam. Meanwhile, Newey’s family suffered irrevocable harm, losing work as a result of the police harassment. Burke would later be killed fighting in Ukraine, where he travelled in 2022 to join the struggle against Russia’s invasion. Yet even after his body was repatriated to the UK, his funeral was staked out by UK police. Prosecutors failed in both cases to present evidence against Burke or the Neweys, while other similar trials have also collapsed.

These trials are part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation. Last month, the Kurdish community in London announced that it is bringing a lawsuit against the police over a violent, disproportionate raid on their community centre in Haringey. They also highlight how its representatives are regularly detained at the UK border under a controversial power: Schedule 7 of the Terror Act, one of the most invasive of its kind in Western Europe, which enables police to interrogate people without any right to silence, and to demand phone and laptop passwords. One Kurdish politician recently won a ruling suggesting the power was being used in a discriminatory fashion against the Kurds, but Kurdish figures such as the former mayor of London’s Haringey borough, Ali Gul Ozbek, are still detained every time they fly.

Last September, I got a taste of this myself, when I was detained under Schedule 7 for the second time and interrogated extensively on my work and reporting in and around Kurdistan, my views on the Turkish government, and British foreign policy in the Middle East. A middle-aged Welsh woman who held a poetry reading with Kurdish music and a member of a delegation observing the Turkish elections were among many others targeted by the same power last year.

And yet, there seems to be little public interest in these costly and aggressive police assaults on Kurdish people who stand for self-determination, women’s rights and democracy — values shared by many Britons. Rather, incidents of repression tend to take place around the time of high-profile meetings between UK and Turkish officials. The community centre, for instance, was raided just days after Defence Minister Grant Shapps secured an arms deal with his Turkish counterpart, while Burke was arrested in the days after President Erdoğan visited London.

The extent of Turkish-UK security cooperation remains unclear. Yet these trials and arrests suggest significant Turkish influence over UK security and foreign policy. “As a Nato ally and a key trading partner, the Turkish state holds considerable sway in its relationship with the UK: the military and intelligence collaboration between the two states has a decades-long history,” says Iida KĂ€yhkö, a security studies researcher at London’s Royal Holloway University, who focuses on the criminalisation of the Kurds.

Elsewhere in Europe, Turkey has been seeking extraordinary concessions in return for dropping its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining Nato. Erdoğan’s list of demands has included more raids on the Kurdish community, the removal of Kurdish flags, and the detention and deportation of scores of Kurdish exiles, including an Iranian Kurdish member of Sweden’s Parliament with no administrative or legal links to Turkey whatsoever. He also wants upgrades to its F-16 fighter jets and permission for a fresh ground assault against Kurdish-led regions in northern Syria. It appears he is willing to imperil Nato in pursuit of his anti-Kurdish agenda.

From Turkey’s perspective, the PKK and the UK’s Syrian Kurdish allies are one and the same: separatist terrorists. But while the PKK has long been included on UK and EU terror lists, no EU or international court has found that the PKK meets this definition. When a test case was brought in Belgium, the country’s highest court found that the Kurdish movement could not be considered a terrorist organisation, but instead a legitimate party to an ongoing civil conflict. “There is no doubt that PKK meets all the criteria that allow it to be considered as a political-military organisation, which carries out an armed struggle against Turkish security services, army and authorities, towards the realisation of the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people,” a lawyer involved in the case told me at the time.

Kurdish representatives argue that delisting the PKK from terror lists would enable both Turkey and the PKK to be held to higher legal standards — especially given that some of the crimes which Turkey imputed to the PKK in the Belgian case were found to have been committed by the Turkish forces themselves. Delisting would also pave the way toward re-opened peace negotiations and a diplomatic, negotiated settlement. KĂ€yhkö argues: “The consistent pattern of repression targeted at Kurdish democratic political activity undermines not only the reputation of the British state, but broader prospects for peace, stability and democracy in the region.”

But as Campbell correctly observes: “The UK is politicising law in favour of one of the world’s worst rights abusers.” The Belgian government ignored its own court’s ruling so as to keep Turkey sweet. And the UK’s latest anti-Kurdish trial will probably demonstrate once again the way in which Erdoğan’s virulent anti-Kurdish agenda is allowed to undermine the best interests and judgement of Western states.


Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Rojava Information Center, the leading independent English-language news source in north and east Syria.

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ian Jeffcott
ian Jeffcott
6 months ago

It would be nice if all of these foreigners could kindly take their various disputes off our streets and back to their own countries.

Emre S
Emre S
6 months ago
Reply to  ian Jeffcott

I bet Iraqis were thinking along the same lines a while back.

David McKee
David McKee
6 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

Not to mention the Afghans.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
6 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

Which western countries have been fighting each other in Iraq this century?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  ian Jeffcott

Hypocrisy much lol ?

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
6 months ago
Reply to  ian Jeffcott

I agree with you except the Kurds are not troublemakers. They can’t afford to be violent or they would be deported. Europe and Britain should bring a genocide complaint against Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey for suppressing the Kurds. See my comment above.

D Walsh
D Walsh
6 months ago

British Kurds. You what mate, is Kurdistan not in the Middle East

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

British Indians and British Pakistanis ethnicly come from even further away. If the situation in Europe leaves the UK being threatened by a beligerent Russia how many of them will join-up to help the British English/Welsh/Scots/Irish? I’m sure that British Kurds along with British Poles, Etc will stay and fight.

David McKee
David McKee
6 months ago

Judging by the two comments so far, the commentors got hopelessly confused half-way through this excellent piece, because they were asking themselves, “Who are the good guys here?” They were not getting any coherent answers.
Well, guess what, that is what politics is like for most of the human beings who inhabit this planet. Politics, Middle East-style, is messy, confused, brutal and violent. It is not remotely reducible to some infantile, “goodies vs baddies” narrative.
Thank you, Mr. Broomfield, you tell a very complex story in a way that is balanced and coherent. You kept the story limited too – you could have included what’s going on in the Caucasus, which would have added vastly more complexity to your tale.
I suspect what is going on here is that the Foreign Office is hopelessly confused, because it wants to back all the horses at some point – this horse this week, that horse next, and so on. So the Home Office is getting contradictory messages from the Foreign Office. And PC Plod, bless him, doesn’t know if he’s on his head or his rear end.

Wyatt W
Wyatt W
6 months ago

This was a great article. I was blessed to be able to go to Iraqi Kurdistan recently. Seeing what these people went through from Saddam and ISIS was eye opening to say the least. The fighters are viewed as heroes by the locals.
Erdogan is an evil thug, not much different than Putin. One the UK will cozy up to and one they’ll fight a proxy war with. Pretty disheartening, the Kurds were some of the best people I’ve ever met.

Michael Spedding
Michael Spedding
6 months ago

Thanks for this excellent discussion, which is very serious, and I cant understand some of the blinkered comments above. Al-Qaieda (ISIS) is a fervent enemy of the UK and of democracy. Their list of battles in the middle east is horrendous (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_and_battles_involving_the_Islamic_State) and it is thanks to the Kurds among others that they were defeated.
The Kurds have been in the front line, against them, with very little support, and being betrayed by Erdogan and also Trump.
I have had my hair cut (!) in the UK by a Kurdish immigrant, an extremely brave guy who fought ISIS in a very hard battle at Mosul where many of his friends were killed. He is now working hard in the UK and is an example of good immigration,
Thus I agree fully with the article, and if we had helped them more (after the mess Blair and Bush created in Irak) some of them wouldnt need to be in the UK.

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
6 months ago

Israel and the Jews have been, and continue to be, on the front lines of this nagging debate on how best to arrange the ruling and the rulers. Empires are a thing of the past, as are monarchies in the west. We continue to have Islamic theocracies, some with monarchs. These are totalitarian theocracies with more in common with communist Russia and China than with a recognizable faith-based nation.
Israel is playing out God’s directive to be a nation, people, and a religion all in one, chosen to be apart from others. Not better than, as anti-semites would distort, just apart and to be a “light among the nations.”
Kurds, Druze, Sikhs, and many native American peoples have ties to a particular piece of land, just as the Hebrews/Jews have ties to Eretz Israel. They are recognized ethnicities and should have homelands just as Israel has managed to reclaim. Balochs in Iran @ the Pakistan border are also an ethnicity that could likely self-govern if allowed to.
Palestinians are the inescapable point of comparison, and they do not compare well. They are products of Arab colonization of the Levant; their names are almost all Arabic. Palestine was never part of Arabia, so why are so many Arabs there ? They were imported from the Ottoman Empire and the ones in Gaza were imported mostly from Egypt in the 19th Century.
It would benefit the world tremendously if western nations would bring a genocide complaint at the Hague against Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria for attempts to wipe out the Kurdish people’s identity. Mahsa Amini had a Kurdish name that was not recognized by Iran. Only Persian and Arabic names are recognized. What Mahsa murdered because she wore her headscarf incorrectly or because she is Kurdish and identified as such ?
My heart is with the Kurds – they should have a homeland. Shame on the west for denying them one after WW 1. They should remedy this failure now even if it means angering the 4 nations with Kurdish populations.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
6 months ago

Turkey’s inclusion in NATO was and is, first and foremost, a geopolitical strategic alliance. Turkey’s geographic position at the mouth of the Black Sea makes it possible to blockade Russia’s few warm water ports basically at will. Whoever controlled the Bosporus effectively controlled access to the entirety of the Black Sea. This alliance was struck during the Cold War for that express purpose when the Soviet Navy was still somewhat threatening. In return for that advantage, the US and others have basically looked the other way regarding Turkey’s poor treatment of minorities and violent opposition to the creation of a Kurdish state. When the US invaded Iraq, they made a point of assuring the Turks they would not partition Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish states, regardless of how eminently practical that would have been and how much easier it would have made the occupation.

It’s debatable whether or not this arrangement is still worth the cost. Turkey’s current leader is leaning awfully hard on western tolerance even as he gets uncomfortably friendly with Putin. The time may soon come to cut Turkey out of the alliance, or at least threaten to do so. The bad behavior that gets tolerated is getting harder to ignore and the benefits of the arrangement are not as relevant as they once were.

Bruce V
Bruce V
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Excellent points all, very well said. Perhaps an opening salvo would be to simply raise the possibility of NATO ditching the unanimous consent requirement for membership. Just talking about it might help chill out Erdogan a bit regarding Sweden.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
6 months ago

What a pity that all the1000s of people who took to the streets in their misplaced support of the Palestinians are not out supporting the Kurdish cause instead. But for some unknown reason, the Kurds obviously aren’t ranked anywhere on the left wing list of oppressed minorities. Possibly because they don’t act like victims or call on Islamist terrorists to fight for them.

fjbernal
fjbernal
5 months ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

They can’t stand the Kurds as their most loyal supporter has always been Israel

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
6 months ago

The question is this: Does Kurdistan have “the right to exist”? If not, why not. If yes, then the British Foreign office or some similar outfit should declare it in writing, find their old Middle East maps and resurrect their practice of drawing lines on them and assigning territories to people. It worked out so well in the past!