Freedom News

Kurdish solidarity crackdown

How “anti-terror” laws are used to silence meaningful dissent and solidarity with oppressed peoples.

In January 2019, I travelled to Syria to learn about the revolution unfolding in the country’s north since 2012. At the time, we called it the Rojava Revolution, as the land being held by revolutionary forces was roughly the area that would have comprised western Kurdistan, or Rojava – a strip of land approximately 30 kilometres deep along the northernmost part of the Syrian nation state. Today, we call it the revolution of North and Eastern Syria because it encompasses land outside the Kurdish majority regions in the north and many more ethnicities than Kurds. The revolution is built on three main pillars, which are worked towards in all areas where the Kurdistan Freedom Movement is present (including outside of Kurdistan in diaspora and international organising): grassroots democracy, women’s liberation, and ecology.

I could talk much more about the ideology of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement and how it was to live in a real life revolution carried out and administered by the people, but this is sadly not the purpose of this article*. This article is about the dark and insidious things that have been happening since I returned from Rojava, illustrating the so-called UK’s escalating slide into fascism.

Before I start, a few notes: first, I want to recognise that this story is not the worst thing that could have happened to me on returning to England. Other folks have had their houses raided, been imprisoned, and seen what I would categorise as the sharp end of “justice” in this country. Second, as a white person and a citizen of the so-called UK, I have spent a lifetime prior to this being incredibly passport-privileged and floating across some of the world’s most dangerous and deadly borders. Even so, I wanted to write this article to tell a story about a specific type of repression that seems to be becoming more prevalent in the current political climate and is likely to affect many readers of this publication if we continue along the current political trajectory.

At the time of writing, it is not illegal to travel to North and Eastern Syria. A law that came into force in 2019 allows the UK government to designate certain areas of the world as no-go areas for British citizens. Citizens found in these areas can be prosecuted upon their return to the UK, but Westminster has not designated North and Eastern Syria as one of these areas (yet). Fighting with a foreign militia such as the YPG or YPJ (People’s Defence Forces in North and Eastern Syria) is illegal under UK law but has proved difficult to prosecute since the government has been working with the YPG and YPJ in the coalition against Islamic State (Isis) since the middle of the last decade. All this to say that even though people travelling to North and Eastern Syria are very likely to hold left-leaning, anarchist or socialist ideas, it has been challenging for the UK government to prevent them from travelling to be part of the revolution there.

For the state, this is a problem. At a time when laws like the Police Crime, Courts and Sentencing Act (‘the bill’ of Kill the Bill fame) are radically restricting the right to dissent and protest, it is not ideal that people can come back from North and Eastern Syria spreading ideas about radical grassroots democracy based on values antithetical to those modelled in the current system.

For the government, the question is how to create an extra-legal deterrent to prevent people from travelling to North and Eastern Syria or becoming involved with the Kurdistan Freedom Movement. The answer to this question comes in the form of a part of the 2001 Terrorism Act called Schedule 7.

For those who are unfamiliar with Schedule 7, it allows “ports officers” (in practice, this means border police, customs officers and counter-terror cops):

‘to stop and question and, when necessary, detain and search, individuals travelling through ports, airports, international rail stations or the border area to determine whether that person appears to be someone who is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism’.

Seems fair, right? The police can stop scary people from entering the UK and carrying out acts of terror? No one wants something like 9/11 to happen here, and the police are just doing their jobs, preventing that from happening?

As with many, some might say all police powers, the cops have a habit of overreaching. They also have a long history of racism and classism that mimics the state they represent.

So, how is Schedule 7 really applied? The first thing to point out is that when you are detained under Schedule 7, you do not have the same ‘rights’ as when arrested. As you are ‘detained’, you have no right to silence – you are required to comply with the police investigation and answer the questions you are asked – otherwise, you will be arrested. You are required to hand over all electronic devices (and their passcodes), or you will be arrested. You are required (in most cases) to give your biometric data and fingerprints, or you will be arrested. The police can only detain you for a short time (six hours max), so there is no time to wait for your lawyer to arrive.

That is the practice. To whom Schedule 7 is applied is also somewhat predictable if you know anything about the so-called UK. The term “terrorism” is, in this case, deliberately opaque. Terrorism is a word that has become part of our everyday vernacular since “the war on terror” began in the early 2000s; however, defining what counts as terrorism is something most states involved in “the war on terror” have not managed in a concise way. Instead, who is, or is not, a terrorist often comes down to the colour of your skin, your religious beliefs, who is being portrayed as the current villain in UK media … you get the jist. Like police stop and search powers, Schedule 7 is disproportionately used to detain black and brown people, especially if those people happen to be Muslim. It has been used less frequently to target people who ideologically oppose the government. In practice, this means that people on the radical left with anarchist, socialist or communist views are more at risk of being stopped under Schedule 7.

Recently, there has been a spike in the number of people associated with the Kurdistan Freedom Movement who have been stopped and questioned at the border using Schedule 7 powers. Many of these are Kurdish community members who are stopped simply for being Kurdish and trying to travel. Some of these people are internationalists who have spent time in Kurdish regions and have been inspired by the Kurdish movement.

I have been stopped under this law every time I have tried to leave the UK since returning from North and Eastern Syria. I have also had Prevent officers round to my house and routinely have my car pulled over for whatever nonsense reason the police can think of that day. The last time I went on holiday, I was asked whether I would like to become an informant for MI5. I could speculate for days about why the UK government is so concerned about my daily life and other people inspired by the Kurdistan Freedom Movement. My theories include the UK’s closeness to the fascist Turkish state after Brexit, the current expansion of NATO and the Turkish state’s veto of new countries joining unless specific conditions around the repression of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement are met, Turkey’s role as the “border police” for the whole of Europe…the list goes on. Still, perhaps the more human question is, what does this mean for those of us who experience repression?

For me, it made me feel wobbly. I hate talking to the police; it makes me feel like a snitch. I have been frightened of ending up in jail if I continue to be politically active, and I have worried that my participation in groups and organising will harm my comrades more than it helps them. Additionally, it is pretty uncomfortable to suspect that you are being watched. A lot.

I have struggled with my mental health for weeks after these stops, especially the cumulative effect of being stopped many times. Despite this, I have stayed involved in organising. This is thanks, in large part, to my comrades. Folks who have dealt with panicked phone calls after stops helped me secure my computer and phone and supported me when my mental health tanked due to repression.

The UK state has refined the tactic of divide and conquer to perfection and has many ways to make people feel isolated. Schedule 7 is one of those methods, and it is carried out within lines of oppression that already exist in our society. Building comradeship is a radical act, in North and Eastern Syria, it is the cornerstone of the revolution, and it needs to be the cornerstone of our movements everywhere. When we talk about how to defend our movements, the first line of self-defence has to be each other.

*If you want to learn more about the movement, check out @kurdistansolnet on social media. Kurdistan Solidarity Network has heaps of resources and can point you toward whatever part of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement you are most interested in.

~ Arîn Qereçox

Image: Michael Sullivan

This article first appeared in the Winter 2023-4 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal

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