UK Criminalises Kurdish Resistance Flags at Behest of Turkey

By Tom Anderson

On January 30th, Arazw Abdullah (known as Beritan Ranya) and Mark Campbell were found guilty of a terrorism offence at London’s Westminster Magistrate’s Court. They were in court for displaying a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) flag. The PKK has been an illegal proscribed organisation in the UK since 2001. However, supporters point out that the PKK has never carried out a single attack against the UK. The continued criminalization of the Kurdish Freedom Movement is being done by the British state as part of a quid pro quo to maintain close diplomatic and trade relations with Turkey and to sell more weapons to the Turkish military.

Both Beritan and Mark have made calls for the decriminalisation of the PKK in the UK.

The two demonstrators were convicted of breaching Section 13 of the UK Terrorism Act. They were both given conditional discharges, suspended for one year. This means that if they are found guilty again within a year, then they will be re-sentenced and could be given a harsher punishment. They were also ordered to pay more than £800 each in court costs.

The UK Terrorism Act doesn’t actually ban flags themselves – but it criminalises behaviour that shows support for groups which are classified as ‘terrorist organisations’ in the UK.

Beritan and Mark are not the first people to be convicted for flying the PKK flag. In 2018, three demonstrators were arrested at a protest against the Turkish invasion of Afrin. They were convicted, but they appealed their conviction all the way to the UK Supreme Court. However, in 2022, the highest court in the UK refused their appeal.

The UK’s repression of the PKK flag has been mirrored in other European countries. In 2019, Kurdish parliamentarian Cansu Özdemir, who is part of the Leftist Die Linke party, was convicted in a German court after tweeting “lift the ban on the PKK” and publishing a photo of the flag. Cansu was ordered to pay a fine. However, she has refused to pay and launched an appeal.

Part of a Wider Pattern of Repression

Beritan and Mark’s convictions are just the latest development in a long history of repression and criminalisation of the Kurdish Freedom Movement in the UK over the last decade. This repression has included police stopping and interrogating supporters of the movement at UK borders; the imprisonment of a Kurdish woman who had recorded a video stating her intent to join the PKK; raids on the houses of supporters of the movement and on London’s Kurdish Community Centre, and the prosecution of internationalists returning from Rojava (Western Kurdistan).

In 2019, People’s Protection Units (YPG) volunteer Aidan James was convicted of a terrorism offence after a court found that he received training in Makhmour camp in Bashur (Southern Kurdistan). More recently, another YPG volunteer, Dan Burke was prosecuted for terrorism and remanded in prison for over a year. He was released in 2020 after the prosecution against him failed. The YPG is not banned in the UK; instead, prosecutors need to prove that YPG volunteers have links to the PKK.

The British state’s repression of the Kurdish Freedom Movement has always been influenced by outside factors. These include the UK’s stance towards the movement and the state’s relationship with Turkey. Often, legal cases related to the Kurdish struggle seem to be brought and then discarded without explanation, suggesting that the prosecutions are being dictated by inter-state concerns rather than simple legality. For example, the 2019 prosecutions of two family members of YPG volunteer Dan Newey were unexpectedly dropped. Sam and Paul Newey were accused of providing support to Dan. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) refused to explain why they had changed their minds.

On November 26, 2023, the British Police tried to stop an event commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the PKK at Harringay’s Kurdish Community Centre. The police raid took place just days after UK defence secretary Grant Shapps’ trip to Turkey to make a new agreement about military cooperation.

In writing about the raid, writer and filmmaker John Lubbock summarised the motivation of the UK as follows:

“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.”

A Targeted Political Arrest

Police arrested Beritan and Mark at a demonstration in 2022 in central London. The protest was against Turkish attacks on Bashur, just after Turkey commenced Operation Claw-Lock against the PKK. The turnout was relatively modest, with around 50 demonstrators. However, the police presence was much greater than usual.

Mark told me that the marchers were surrounded by over a hundred police officers as they reached Whitehall, which is the road where the Prime Minister’s residence is located. Police then formed ‘snatch squads’ to move in and arrest people holding PKK flags. Both Beritan and Mark were arrested while displaying the flag.

At court, Detective Sergeant Hearing confirmed that police had been given a briefing before the demonstration and that officers had been told how to recognise flags associated with the PKK. Hearing claims to be an expert on flags of proscribed groups.

Mark said that he did not hear anything for almost six months after his arrest. But just a couple of days before the six-month statute of limitations was up, Mark and Beritan received letters from the police summonsing them to court on terrorism charges. The CPS accused them of displaying:

“an article, namely a flag, in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that you were a member of a proscribed organisation, namely PKK, Contrary to section 13(1) and (3) of the Terrorism Act 2000.”

Mark told me that his friends were shocked when he told them he had been charged under the Terrorism Act. He said:

“Anyone I spoke to – friends, family– when I tell them I’d been charged under the Terrorism Act their jaws drop, they say ‘you can’t be serious!’ they were just flabbergasted and shocked that this case was being brought.”

Mark sees the CPS’ decision to go ahead with a prosecution as a political decision, part of a long term strategy of repressing the UK’s Kurds in order to placate Turkey.

Mark gave the example of a “young mother and her sons” who were “arrested and interrogated” in 2017, for allegedly collecting money for a terrorist organisation. In fact, they had been distributing the leftist pro-Kurdish newspaper Yeni Ozgur Politika (New Free Politics). The charges against them were later dropped. Interestingly, the Yeni Ozgur Politika arrests came shortly before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the UK in 2018. A visit that heralded greater trade cooperation between the UK and Turkey.

Mark said that the UK had grown closer to Turkey since its Brexit from the European Union. He told me:

“The British government’s attitude is that they are willing to accede to the Turkish government’s requests to clamp down on the diaspora. [prime minister] Liz Truss made her first post Brexit trade deal with Turkey and Richard Moore, director of MI6 [the British external intelligence service], is a Turkophile.

Unconvincing Police Evidence

During the two-day court case at Westminster Magistrate’s Court on the 17th and 18th of January 2024, the legal defence team called evidence from Kurdish Studies academic Dr. Joost Jungerden, who argued that the flag that Beritan and Mark had displayed was in fact the flag of the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (ERNK) and that this flag was a unifying symbol for the movement for Kurdish rights as a whole, rather than simply the flag of the PKK.

The defence team also argued that Beritan, Mark, and the other demonstrators’ motivations in carrying the flag were to call for the de-proscription of the PKK. They argued that their clients were exercising their rights under the Human Rights Act by doing this.

The flag that Beritan was carrying was a PKK flag superimposed with a picture of party co-founder Abdullah Öcalan. Defence counsel argued that carrying this flag represented support for Öcalan’s political ideas and for his release from Turkish prison.

In cross-examination, the prosecution’s expert witness confirmed that carrying an image of Öcalan was not prohibited in the UK.

The prosecution team called Detective Sergeant Hearing, a self-professed expert on the flags of proscribed organisations. Hearing gave evidence that the flag carried by Mark and Beritan was linked to the PKK, but only cited Google and the Wikipedia website as the sources for his information. Subsequently, during defence cross-examination, Hearing mistook the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) flag with the flag of the ERNK.

Mark told me that he felt the defence team had decidedly won their arguments in court. However,  the judge, in his written verdict, rejected the idea that the demonstration would have been understood as a call for de-proscription; instead, he wrote:

“I am sure that the activity of each defendant would not have been understood by an objective, informed, and reasonable observer as amounting to merely de-proscription advocacy as opposed to support for the PKK.”

Silencing Kurdish Voices

Beritan explained why she had joined the demonstration. She told me:

“I am 42 years old. I remember growing up under the fear of air strikes, chemical bombings, genocide, the Anfal [genocide], cannons, bombs, and weapons on myself and my people. In addition, there is a lot of poverty and a lack of basic services in my country, Kurdistan. Our country is rich in oil and all precious minerals, but we Kurdish people cannot provide a decent life for our children and ourselves due to the theft and looting by the occupying countries with the support of other powerful countries.”

She continued:

“Despite all this, we are bombed daily by Turkish planes and drones in our cities, and our schools, electricity, water, and public places are destroyed. Women, children, the elderly, and innocent people are being killed. Our environment is being destroyed and burned. Our forests are being cut down and their trees are being taken to Turkey. Many innocent Kurds are being tortured in Turkish prisons for 20 to 30 years just for being Kurds. For example, Abdullah Öcalan has been imprisoned in solitary confinement on the island of İmralı for 25 years without any legal rights.”

Beritan points out the ridiculousness of the British police arresting her for displaying a flag while she was protesting the brutality inflicted on the Kurdish people. She continued:

“The Kurdish people in Turkey and Iran do not have the right to study, speak, and learn in their mother tongue. They face daily imprisonment, torture, and even execution. When I took to the streets to protest against these crimes, the British police arrested me and took me to court. Am I guilty?!”

“Oppressive Counter-Terrorism Policing”

Many supporters in the UK see Beritan and Mark’s convictions as political. According to Kat Hobbs of the Network for Police Monitoring:

“This is another example of a repressive crackdown on international solidarity. Nobody in this country is made any more safe and secure by suppressing organisations who have never operated here and who, in the case of the PKK, are banned within the UK only to placate the severely repressive Turkish government and maintain political alliances. Instead, the Kurdish community are made to feel less safe and their rights are imperilled by oppressive counter-terrorism policing. Choosing to arrest anyone for chanting ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ is shameful.”

I asked the co-chair of the Kurdish People’s Assembly in Britain about why it is important to de-proscribe the PKK. She argued:

“The de-proscription of the PKK is the legitimate request of the people. The PKK is seeking legitimate solutions and seeking peace in a region afflicted by war. Globally, we can see that wars are occurring predominantly because of people’s inability to have the right to self determination. If people had the right to self determination, a majority of these wars wouldn’t be happening. And that is something that the PKK is fighting for: the right to self determination and the fundamental rights of women. I don’t see any act of terrorism in that.”

The legal justification for the criminalisation of the PKK has been challenged on many levels. An appeal by the PKK to the European Court of Justice is underway and a legal case in Germany challenging proscription is also ongoing. In 2020, Belgium’s highest court found that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation, and instead ruled that the war between the PKK and Turkey was “a non-international armed conflict.” In defiance of the ruling, the Belgian state is still including the organisation on its list of proscribed terrorist groups.

Right now, the proscription of the PKK is enabling the harassment, intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment of members of the Kurdish Freedom Movement and their supporters. The pattern of repression that is happening in the UK is being replicated in many European countries. But as Mark emphasised, it will be impossible “to reach a peaceful solution while one side is criminalised.”

You can learn about the campaign for de-proscription of the PKK at the → Peace in Kurdistan Campaign


  • Tom Anderson

    Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. He is co-author of Struggles for Autonomy in Kurdistan. Twitter: @ShoalCollective

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