Veteran photojournalist, Kurdish rights activist and Medya News commentator Mark Campbell this week went on trial together with female Kurdish activist Beritan Silemani, accused by the UK authorities of holding a flag associated with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at a protest in 2022 following Turkey’s targeting of civilian holidaymakers as part of a wave of airstrikes against Iraqi Kurdistan.
The two activists were found guilty under the UK’s Terror Act, given a 12-month suspended sentence and ordered to pay costs. They intend to continue fighting the case at higher levels of the British justice system, while the trial also provided a platform to spotlight the absurdity of the UK’s criminalisation of a movement known for its women-led, democratic struggle against ISIS and the Turkish Armed Forces. Medya News spoke to Campbell to discuss the highly-politicised trial, and its broader legal and political ramifications.
Could you briefly summarise the circumstances of your arrest?
I don’t know why, but I’m always so shocked by the level of state intervention in these peaceful demonstrations by Kurdish exiles who’ve fled the most barbaric repression in Turkey; and yet here we had, entering Whitehall, about 100 police, all stoked up and very aggressive, who encircled the demonstration, kettled us. They steam in, grab people, drag them round the corner and start questioning them very aggressively. I was incensed and I went and picked up a very large flag, and went to the back of the demonstration and held it up, and started with a long speech, saying this is exactly what happens in Turkey; Kurds are criminalised. How can there ever be a solution to the Kurdish issue when one side is criminalised?
As you freely admit to holding the flag, what arguments could you raise in the trial?
Our contention was that they got it wrong in the first place, and this was the flag of [separate but related Kurdish organisation] ERNK. And through that, we were able to talk about deprescription [delist as a terror organisation] … We were able to talk also about the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan and the feminist revolution in Rojava, and the idea of a democratic nation that Öcalan formed.
In some ways I was surprised [by the guilty verdict], because the judge had accepted, and prosecution and defence had accepted that context was everything; it was the context of how you were holding the flag. The so-called expert of the Metropolitan Police had to admit the flag itself isn’t illegal; it’s the context of how the flag is held.
The prosecution were forced to read out my article from Medya News, in which I explained why I held up the flag in the first place. They thought they were just going to read out the title, but my barrister said, if you read one part, you’re going to have to read it all. They read out the whole article, which sets out the reasons why I held the flag.
What are the broader political issues at stake here?
Everybody knows that without the decriminalisation of this Kurdish issue, there’s going to be continued war and no opportunity for a peaceful resolution, which is more needed than ever before. Turkey can’t continue to treat the Kurdish issue in a military way, as a security issue: at some point, it’s got to realise that there must be a political solution.
This incident is just one part of a broader pattern of criminalisation of the UK Kurdish community. Could you address that?
Interestingly, it’s always at a time when there are arms deals, trade deals being made. For example, in 2018 Theresa May signed a large arms deal with Erdoğan when he came to London. Just a couple of weeks before, a young Kurdish family’s house was raided by armed police; the charges were dropped, but the police pursued them, and all they were involved in was distributing a Kurdish newspaper published in Germany, Özgür Politika, which is a perfectly legal newspaper in Germany and here. They were charged under the Terrorism Act! Again, it’s completely fabricated, made-up stuff, that’s really very serious. But it’s obviously constructed to show Turkey ‘look, we’re cracking down’.
Do you feel like you were personally targeted?
Interestingly, on the day of my trial, there were three articles published in Turkey accusing me of all sorts of weird and wonderful things, completely and utterly libellous and untrue. That was quite interesting. Right on the day of the trial, three articles appear in the Turkish media about Mark Campbell, who’s a ‘terrorist supporter’ and ‘recruiter’ of young people, which is just extraordinary. If they were in this country, I would have absolutely taken them to court over libel.