British anti-terror police found themselves in the headlines this week after using a controversial power to detain a French publisher at the British border and quiz him about his opposition to the French government. Ernest Moret, who was travelling to the UK for a book fair, has now been released on bail after refusing to surrender his laptop and phone passwords. The case shone a spotlight on a little-known but widely-abused power, Schedule 7 of the Terror Act (2000),
which equips British police with the ability to detain, search and interrogate anyone they claim is entering or leaving the country for reasons related to the commission of acts of terrorism – without needing to formally charge the individual in question, and without the right to silence.
As might be expected, this power has been widely criticized by civil rights charities as open to abuse. And nor should it come as any surprise that the Kurdish community is singled out for harassment, detention and obstruction of travel using the power, further preventing their participation in legitimate diplomatic, political and journalistic activities linked to the Kurdish cause.
Civil rights campaigners argue that the power is excessive, and used disproportionately to target people from Muslim and minority ethnic backgrounds. Analysis by the organisation Cage has shown that of the 419,000 people stopped under Schedule 7 between 2009 and 2019, only 30 were convicted. This 0.007% conviction rate suggests the power is being used as a dragnet to target particular communities, subject individuals to harassment such as the forced removal of headscarves and interrogation about innocuous religions practices, and restrict freedom of movement and expression.
This generalized use of the power has dropped off steeply in recent years, with protracted public criticism meaning the police now favour other methods to gather information. But Schedule 7 is still regularly used to target Kurdish political representatives, activists, journalists and ordinary members of the diaspora. Recently, Kurdish community leaders and a journalist travelling to France to pay their respects and join peaceful protests following the murder of three Kurds in a terror attack on a community centre were detained under this power. Kurdish families have been detained en masse, and had their personal cash seized,
while travelling to Paris to attend the funeral of the victims of yet another triple murder of Kurds. Many prominent British-Kurdish political organizers expect to be stopped and interrogated each time they travel, whether to attend conferences or events in Europe, or simply when visiting their family in Kurdistan.
In a recent, landmark case, a member of umbrella political organisation the Kurdistan National Congress,
who was detained on arrival in the UK, won protections against the potentially-discriminatory use of Schedule 7, indicating the power should not be used on the basis of a legally-discriminatory approach to legitimate political beliefs. But as other recent stops on the UK-French border make clear, the power is still being used with little regard for the letter of the law to systematically harass Kurds and their supporters. The primary aims of these detentions therefore appear to be generalized information-gathering about the Kurdish community, and deterring Kurds from engaging in political activity of any sort.
The French publisher Moret’s own arrest was controversial because the British authorities appeared to be using this uniquely far-reaching power to do the French intelligence services’ dirty work for them, by investigating whether the publisher had been involved in anti-government – not terrorism, and certainly no concern of the British authorities, by any stretch of the imagination. “Perhaps most seriously, during his interrogation he was asked to name the ‘anti-government’ authors in the catalogue of the publishing house La Fabrique, for which he works,” said a statement from his employers. “None of these questions should be relevant to a British police officer.”
The same question hangs over the British police’s use of this power to target Kurds. Turkey has long demonstrated the ability to influence British security policy, with heavy-handed policing of Kurdish protests, raids on Kurdish homes and community centres, and aggression at the border all par for the course – and arrests of Kurdish activists often timed to coincide with Turkish diplomatic visits to, or trade deals with, the UK.
Notably, the UK has recently brought and subsequently dropped five separate cases against volunteers supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS and Turkish-backed Islamist groups, running up against the inconvenient fact the UK has never considered Syrian Kurdish groups to be terrorist and is itself allied with the SDF in the fight against ISIS. This repeated pattern suggests external, political pressure on the legal process, as judges repeatedly ask why these cases are being put forward in the first place.
When I myself was detained and questioned under this power on return from my work as a reporter in Syrian Kurdistan, the anti-terror police were clear that there was nothing illegal about travelling to or working in the region. These comments raised the question of why I should be detained and face restrictions when travelling in the first place. As is typical in such instances, the interviewing detective professed nominal sympathy for the ideals of women’s rights, democracy and rule of law being implemented in Kurdish-led North and East Syria. All communities deserve the right to equal treatment under the law – but all the more so when they are fighting for values the UK is supposed to share.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.