In early October, 265 Syrian Kurds crossed the border into Turkey, fleeing the latest wave of attacks by the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) on Kobane, a city on Turkey’s southern border. They were promptly detained by the Turkish military, conveniently stationed not to provide aid to Syrian Kurdish fighters in the YPG (People’s Defence Units) but to facilitate its own brand of oppression. The refugees, suspected of belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is still listed as a proscribed organisation in Turkey, the UK, the EU and the US, were funnelled into a basketball arena, where they were unlawfully detained, in many cases for weeks, threatened and physically maltreated.
Days after the arrests, in the midst of massive protests against Turkey’s refusal to support the defence of Kobane and having taken no direct military action against ISIS since the Turkish parliament approved its participation in the US-led bombing campaign, the Turkish military ordered fighter jets to bomb PKK positions inside Turkey. The parliamentary motion that gave the government its mandate made no mention of ISIS and yet the PKK, whose success in holding back ISIS in Iraq and Syria is well documented, was explicitly named. Peace negotiations between Turkey and the PKK, which began in 2013, hang in the balance.
The PKK has been officially designated as a ‘terrorist’ organisation since 2000. Founded by Abdullah Öcalan, among others, in 1978, it has been engaged in armed conflict since 1984. During Turkey’s ‘dirty war’ in the 1990s, when thousands of Kurdish villages were razed and extra-judicial killings, torture and forced disappearances were common tools in the state’s own repertoire of terror, the PKK’s armed struggle became the frontline defence for the Kurdish people and a vehicle for the expression of Kurdish identity and aspirations for self-determination.
With the terror label, however, has come a raft of domestic anti-terrorism measures that emulate the ramped-up police powers that prop up the west’s so-called ‘war on terror’. Since 2009, more than 8,000 people have been convicted in what has been called ‘the KCK trials’, named after the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), which the government claims is affiliated to the PKK. Journalists, trade unionists, activists, students, and elected officials have been subjected to mass show trials, accused of belonging to or providing support to the PKK. The government’s own statistics reveal the extent of the measures, with nearly 40,000 people prosecuted for membership of an illegal organisation. As a consequence, Turkey has the largest number of prisoners convicted of ‘terrorism’ anywhere in the world.
The EU and UK, with large and politically vocal Kurdish communities, have been happy to participate in the criminalisation of what should be legitimate political activity. Kurdish-language broadcasters deemed sympathetic to the Kurdish struggle are repeatedly shut down. Kurdish community centres, such as the Halkevi in Dalston, London, have been raided by intelligence services and computers and equipment seized. In 2013, three Kurdish women activists were assassinated in broad daylight in central Paris; in January 2014, three coachloads of Kurds on their way to the anniversary demonstration against this killing were held at Dover under the Terrorism Act. Even at the latest demonstrations for Kobane, protesters across the UK have been told by police they are prohibited from carrying flags with Öcalan’s image.
As a movement for self-determination that grew out of the divisive consequences of colonial map-making and decades of denial of Kurdish cultural heritage, language and identity, the PKK cannot simply be cast as a ‘terrorist organisation’, equivalent to ISIS, as President Erdoğan has clumsily attempted. Turkey’s (and its allies’) double game in Syria — facilitating and colluding with the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in an effort to destabilise both the Assad government and the new democratic autonomous self-administration of Rojava (Western Kurdistan, Syria) — has exposed its hypocrisy. Instead, the PKK and its offshoots in Syria are demonstrating what liberatory praxis looks like in a place where violence and oppression are endemic.
Now, no longer able to conflate armed conflict with terrorism, calls to remove the PKK from the list of banned organisations are coming from diverse voices, from the German parliament to American political analysts. In the UK, an international appeal by the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign and the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities has been gaining momentum. It follows earlier calls for delisting by human rights lawyers in Europe and conflict resolution experts. A political resolution to the conflicts in Turkey and Syria will likely be impossible while the PKK remains proscribed, and lifting the ban is a political decision, not a legal one, that could be easily taken if the will was there.