TERRORISM CHARGES against my brother, Jim Matthews, came as a shock, two full years after his return from Northern Syria, where he had fought on the front line against Daesh with the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units). Jim had avoided media attention during that time, working as an English teacher and recovering from the exhaustion, trauma and multiple bereavements that resulted from his service with the YPG. He’d been arrested and questioned by Special Branch officers at the airport, but eventually his passport had been returned and it seemed likely that no further action would be taken.
The political background to the prosecution and the timing of the decision to charge are complex. My brother’s case strikes at the heart of Tory foreign policy. A few days before police arrived at Jim’s door, a Foreign Office document entitled Kurdish Aspirations and the Interests of the UK was published, borrowing heavily from research conducted by the Henry Jackson Society and discussing the UK’s interaction with the YPG in the fight against Daesh.
The YPG and its all-female equivalent, the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), have been the most effective fighting force against Daesh, backed with arms, training and air support by the US-led coalition of which UK troops have been a part. The document stresses that the Turkish government lists YPG as a terrorist organisation (the UK does not) and cites its alleged links to the Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The Foreign Office continues to vacillate over the status of the YPG - neither Boris Johnson nor Minister of State Alistair Burt has been able to provide a straight answer.
Given the recent Turkish invasion of Afrin, a campaign characterised by violations of international law including indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets, looting and ethnic cleansing, the UK’s relationship with the Erdogan regime requires scrutiny. Not only was a £125m arms deal struck last January, but the EU recently paid Erdogan £3bn for the maintenance of displaced Syrian refugees.
Erdogan has become increasingly aggressive in his rhetoric, dismissing widespread calls to withdraw from Afrin and threatening to open the flow of refugees into Europe. In a Brexit-obsessed climate, in which xenophobia and immigrant-blaming are becoming endemic, our struggling, rudderless government is prepared to go to some lengths to avoid this - abandoning our Kurdish allies to Turkish atrocities may seem a fair price to pay. It would not be the first genocide of Kurds to which western governments have turned a blind eye.
The use of terrorism law to prosecute a volunteer fighting with a UK-backed militia, against a clear enemy, is unique. Legally there are two possible rationales. Firstly, as Amber Rudd implied in a somewhat garbled response to Ben Bradshaw’s parliamentary question on 26th February, British citizens may not join any foreign militia, and secondly, YPG is a terrorist organisation. Under the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870, British citizens may not fight with a foreign militia against a state with which Britain is at peace. Clearly the Home Secretary was not implying that Britain was at peace with the Islamic State, so it must follow that membership of the YPG itself is somehow grounds for terrorism charges, despite the absence of the YPG from the UK’s list of proscribed organisations.
Parallels have been drawn between the international YPG volunteers against Daesh and the International Brigade volunteers of the Spanish Civil War. However, the latter arrived home to cheering crowds, while Jim was greeted by immediate arrest and interrogation. We are currently under the most repressive right wing administration since Thatcher. Perhaps the socialist feminist Democratic Confederation of Rojava elicits a visceral reaction at the highest level of government, particularly given the openly anti-fascist stance of many volunteers, including Anna Campbell, recently killed in a Turkish air strike.
As the Crown Prosecutor observed at Jim’s initial hearing in February: “This case will hinge on the definition of terrorism”. It is my belief that that definition is being stretched beyond reasonable limits to serve the cynical agenda of a government in crisis.
Labour Briefing May 2018