The UK has one of the most draconian detention powers of any country in Europe.
British police are able to question anyone at the country’s borders, without the right to silence or any formal charge, while forcing them to hand over their phone and laptop passwords – or face criminal prosecution as a result.
While travelling back to the UK from Belgrade, where I live and work, I was detained and interrogated for five hours at Luton airport by plain-clothes police.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have since intervened on my behalf, writing to the police to emphasise the UK should be “a safe space for journalists undertaking their lawful activity.” Sadly, that’s far from the case.
It was clear my detention was motivated by my reporting in Kurdistan and on Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds – raising questions about the extent of Turkish influence on the British authorities.
It’s just the tip of the iceberg, and part of a series of attacks on me for my reporting, highlighting a broader pattern of excessive and unwarranted influence from Turkey on UK and EU security policy.
This excessive power – Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terror Act (2000) – has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.
In theory, it should only be used to determine whether an individual is involved in preparing “acts of terrorism”. But the police felt free to interrogate me on my political beliefs, and my opinions on the British and Turkish governments and UK policy in the Middle East.
From the outset of my detention, the police were aware that I work as a professional journalist. But this didn’t stop them from asking intrusive and inappropriate questions.
How did I find my sources? Did I consider my work objective? How did I make my reporting balanced? Who paid me, how much, and where? What did I plan to do in the UK? (Visit friends and family, Notting Hill Carnival, and an alpaca sanctuary, as it happened.)
Absurdly, I was asked my opinions on jihadi terrorism and even whether I’d ever sent anyone a video of a beheading. In fact, the Kurds are known worldwide for their leading role in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.
Syrian Kurds remain formally allied with Britain as the key partner on the ground of the US-led international coalition to defeat Islamic State.
There is no public interest in detaining people for covering the Kurdish issue. On the contrary, the Kurdish movement played a crucial role in protecting the UK and Europe from further Islamic State attacks like the Manchester and Paris massacres.
It was the Syrian Kurds who announced the eradication of Islamic State as a territorial force in 2019, significantly reducing its ability to conduct attacks against the West.
Sometimes the questioning slipped into farce – as when one officer asked me whether I felt obliged to wear “national dress” in order to stay safe in Belgrade. It was hard not to laugh.
As I told the police, my reporting on the Kurdish issue is a matter of public record, and appears throughout the mainstream press (VICE, Independent, New Statesman) as well as in specialist and Kurdish sites, offering both supportive and more critical perspectives on the Kurdish political movement.
I was eventually released, but the police have impounded my phone, computer and a Kindle containing notes for the book I’m working on.
Pattern of harassment
This stop didn’t come as a total surprise. I was previously subjected to a Schedule 7 stop in 2021, after facing persecution in Europe for my reporting on the Kurdish issue.
While travelling from Greece to Italy on holiday I was detained by masked, armed police who informed me I was banned from the Schengen Zone (where 27 countries have abolished their borders), at Germany’s behest.
I was then deported back to Greece, and spent two months in squalid immigration detention facilities in Patras, Athens, and a converted military camp in Corinthos condemned by the Committee to Prevent Torture.
“I was then deported back to Greece, and spent two months in squalid immigration detention facilities”
I shared a cell with up to 40 migrants, and was sometimes held in solitary confinement for days at a time, while witnessing police beating of my fellow detainees.
Two years on from my eventual deportation back to the UK, I’m still engaged in a legal battle to overturn this undemocratic, unwarranted listing in the Schengen Information System (SIS) as an “undesirable individual”.
No official reason has been given for the ban, and nor is there any possibility for a court hearing.
Both Greek and German authorities initially blamed one another for the listing, which remains in place to date despite appeals to both governments, and has prevented me from working, speaking at conferences, and visiting friends.
Again, it appears this ban was imposed as a result of direct or indirect Turkish pressure on EU states.
Turkey’s influence is clear since both the UK’s Schedule 7 and the EU’s SIS ban have been used in the same way to target other people with links to the Kurdish issue.
For example, a British medical volunteer who worked in Kurdistan at the same time as my reporting in the region was simultaneously banned from the Schengen area.
Schedule 7 was recently used to target a left-wing French publisher, seemingly at the French government’s behest, on his arrival in London to attend a book fair. The same power is regularly used to target members of the UK’s Kurdish diaspora, with some reporting detention and interrogation every time they travel.
Iida Käyhkö, who researches the criminalisation of the Kurdish movement at Royal Holloway’s Information Security Group, tells me that Schedule 7 detentions of people with Kurdish links have increased since autocratic Turkish President Erdogan was re-elected in May’s general election. After this, the UK and Turkey signed new security accords.
Further border stops have targeted a 49-year-old Welsh woman who organised a poetry reading I gave to the Kurdish community in Cardiff and a women’s activist travelling to the UK for a conference.
Others stopped include members of a UK delegation, involving a British MP, that travelled to Turkey to monitor an unfair electoral process marked by near-total government control of the Turkish press and the detention of thousands of members of the pro-Kurdish opposition.
“The target isn’t only Kurdish people, but also those who support them, especially in the quest for a world that does not support the concentration of power, whether in Britain, Turkey, or elsewhere,” says British activist Vala Francis.
Francis joined the electoral delegation to Turkey and also filed freelance reports from the campaign trail, before facing detention and interrogation under Schedule 7 on her return to the UK.
“The target isn’t only Kurdish people, but also those who support them”
Turkey is a key trading partner for the UK, has bought nearly £1bn worth of arms from Britain in the past five years, and serves as NATO’s attack-dog in the Middle East.
Erdogan’s attacks on the pro-democratic Kurdish movement therefore align with British policy by bolstering his autocratic regime and ensuring a “strong” partner in the region.
As the NUJ stated when they wrote to the Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorism Commissioner on my behalf, ”when journalists travel between other countries and the UK, they should not expect to be detained, and have their equipment searched and seized.”
But given Turkey’s evident ability to influence British policy in the pursuit of its war against Kurdish journalistic expression, political activity and self-determination, these unjustified and anti-democratic detentions come as no surprise.
I believe these stops should concern anyone who believes in freedom of expression, journalistic independence, and the fundamental right of self-determination.