Last week, Shilan Özçelik, an 18 year old from London, became the first person to be convicted of a terrorism offence for attempting to join the fight against Isis (Daesh).
Ms Özçelik was accused of engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorist acts for making plans to leave the UK to join the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). She stated that she “admired” both the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) for fighting against Daesh, saying:
The only people defending them over there was the YPG, the PKK. It was amazing, the fact that they were there and they were trying to protect innocent people – I just admired it.
The PKK has been listed as a terrorist organisation since 2001, but there have long been calls to lift the ban, given they have engaged with Turkey in several unilateral ceasefires and a 2-year-long peace process. In fact, it is Turkey who have made no effort to engage in the peace process. Following the Rojava revolution, Turkey has spent more time attacking the PKK than Daesh, killing many more civilians than the PKK, including 21 people in Cizre in September. Furthermore, progressive Kurdish forces are the only people on the ground fighting Daesh in Rojava and, with the US backing up the YPG/YPJ militias with airstrikes, there have been increasing demands to take the PKK off the terrorism list.
During the trial at the Old Bailey, jurors were told she made a 25-minute video and had written two letters to her parents, detailing her desire to become “a militant”. She subsequently claimed the story was a cover for wanting to go and live with her boyfriend in Belgium but despite this the jury found her guilty of preparing for acts of terrorism.
Chillingly, in sentencing Ms Özçelik to 21 months imprisonment, the judge, John Bevan, conceded there was no evidence she undertook any actions to “advance the aim expressed in the video”. In other words, she had not engaged in any violent acts, or even travelled to Kurdistan – she had simply made a video and written a couple of letters, and this was enough to send a young woman to prison convicted of terrorism.
This was echoed in a statement made by the organisation Peace in Kurdistan at the time of her arrest, who also highlighted the need to delist the PKK:
We emphatically reject this labelling of the PKK, which we believe confuses the Kurdish people’s legitimate struggle for self-determination with terrorism and has the effect of criminalising anyone in our community who is part of peaceful political activity. We know that Shilan has never committed any act of violence and poses no threat to the people of this country.
Ms Özçelik’s solicitor, Ali Has, claimed “there was clear evidence of political motivation” in the prosecution of the case, given that others who have come back from fighting Daesh have not been prosecuted. He further stated:
As her defence lawyers we have always felt that the case highlights the clear hypocrisy designed to submerge human rights defenders. The underlying rational and political drivers behind this and such prosecutions are clear; the PKK (which is embraced by millions of Kurdish people as being a legitimate defender of their basic rights) is banned as a “terrorist” organisation and therefore any allegiance to it will not be tolerated. This seems to be the UK’s response to the plight of the Kurdish people who have suffered decades of brutality at the hands of the Turkish state, in Iraq and most recently at the hands of ISIS.
A week after the Paris attacks, it must be clearer than ever that this woman shouldn’t be criminalised, let alone imprisoned, for wanting to join the PKK, especially as other (non Kurdish) people who have travelled to fight have been praised. However, Commander Richard Walton, head of SO19, the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism command, clearly disagrees, stating after the court case:
We urge parents and families to talk to us at the earliest opportunity if they have concerns about any girl or woman being enticed into supporting terrorist groups like the PKK or ISIS.
Meanwhile, the police have capitalised on the Paris attacks by claiming they now won’t have enough money to fight terrorism if the proposed cuts to policing are introduced. However, whilst budgets are spent criminalising communities, stopping those taking aid to refugees under terrorism legislation, and branding protesters as terrorists, this is hardly surprising. There needs to be a drastic rethink over what is labelled as terrorism – delisting the PKK would be a good starting point.
Featured image via Kurdistan Tribune