AS part of an international delegation of observers for the presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 and 28, I went to the south-eastern regions of Turkey, north Kurdistan.

I observed the elections alongside parliamentarians, activists, lawyers, academics, students and trade union representatives from Scotland, England, Germany and Switzerland.

When I flew in to London on my way back to Scotland, I was detained by counter-terrorism police and interrogated for three hours under special legislation that, unlike any other condition of questioning, does not give a right to silence.

Under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the police have the legal right to passwords for any technology, or else the detained person can be prosecuted for up to two years in prison. My phone and laptop were seized.

READ MORE: Vladimir Putin faces armed rebellion from Wagner group

So what does British counter-terrorism have to do with international scrutiny over whether Turkish elections are free and fair?

We spent weeks following the campaign trail of the Green Left Party, YSP – Yeşil Sol Parti, the new Kurdish-majority parliamentary party that took over from the Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP – Halkların Demokratik Partisi.

HDP face a closure case in the Turkish courts, and thousands of its members are in prison. YSP call for women’s rights, democratisation of every part of society, protection for minority languages and cultures, and a centring of ecology. Their politics are critical of the government’s shift towards the right, towards an enforcement of religious conservatism and the intensive war policies.

We drove to rural villages in convoys, attended weddings and danced traditional govend with the families, joined language and culture rights events and visited factories and shops.

In the countryside, children would pour from the houses, run alongside the cars and beg for the multi-coloured YSP flags. Men sat on tractors and women from balconies would raise their hands to make the “victory” sign, famous as a regional symbol of resistance against colonialism.

The day after I arrived in Diyarbakir, more than 130 people were arrested across the country in armed dawn raids. They were mostly lawyers, journalists, academics, artists that amplify Kurdish culture, and campaign workers for YSP. Zeki Baran, spokesperson for the political prisoners confederation TUHAD-FED, told me that there are between eight and 10,000 Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey.

An announcement was called for 1pm in the local neighbourhood to denounce the politically motivated arrests.

I walked with local party members to the announcement area, which was pre-emptively surrounded by riot police and public order vehicles lurking in side streets. The police tried to stop the announcement from taking place, then allowed it; we marched, but were then stopped by the lines of riot shields. Then, again, we were allowed to march, and then stopped; this repeated every few metres, with the crowd fragmented each time by security forces, and groups of people encircled.

A similar type of policing was used during a women’s language and culture day event we attended, where dozens of local women in traditional dresses were banned from holding signs and placards that called for Kurdish languages to be protected and respected, and they were blocked from marching down the road.


Erdoğan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), won the second round of elections, continuing his 21-year rule. We saw dozens of unknown military personnel voting in a rural polling station in Hakkari during the first election.

People sent us evidence of administrative corruption with hundreds of votes attributed to the wrong party. And in the second elections, we saw the aftermath of a woman attacked by Hezbollah members in Diyarbakir. A YSP member was shot and blinded by AKP supporters in Nusaybin. Compared to previous elections, which saw significant ballot box stuffing as well as bombings, this is still relatively peaceful – but we cannot call it free or fair.

Now that Erdoğan has won again, the people we campaigned with are likely to face years in prison, even for the legitimate campaigning of a parliamentary party. In the five days directly before the second election, 182 people who had some relation to YSP were arrested in dawn raids.

Ceylan Akça, YSP MP in Turkey, told us: “I don’t feel defeated.

“Everyone here has a court case – they have at least six years of prison sentence dangling over their head, and yet they still come and work. And we will make sure that we will protect and defend everything that we have accomplished in the last two decades, and in the time before – we will hold on to this, defend this, and we will build on it.”

Domestically, the Kurdish community is under surveillance by the British state. Schedule 7 stops are an effective way to harass the diaspora and use additional powers to gain information while people go to visit family or work in Europe and Turkey. In Scotland, the Kurdish Community Centre – a registered charity – was raided by police in 2017 under an anti-terrorism pretext. While books and flags were confiscated, no charges were ever made. The centre hosts community breakfasts and cultural events, including language lessons.

For years, Britain and Turkey have enjoyed a close relationship – not just as Nato partners, but as economic and political strategists from one side of the continent to another. Turkey holds the largest number of refugees in the world, at more than four million – most of whom fled the Syrian civil war. Erdoğan has threatened to “open the gates” to Europe when he needs political support for his war policies in northern Syria – their lives remain useful bargaining chips. The Turkish state receives money from the EU for hosting them.

When I was detained, most of the questions were specifically to do with Kurdish politics. I was asked what I thought about Abdullah Öcalan – the leader who formed the foundation of the modern struggle for Kurdish autonomy in the region, and author of numerous books from his cell on the heavily guarded prison island. Of the 23 years he has been imprisoned in solitary confinement, he has spent the past 27 months in complete isolation, with no lawyer or family contact. Zeki said: “This isolation is first used on Öcalan, to measure the pulse of society, and then it’s spread to the prisons, then to society in general.”

The police also pointedly raised eyebrows at my handwritten vocabulary list of Kurdish words that included “Public Prosecutor’s Court”, as if articulating oneself in Kurdish – and in particular, the ability to name the institution that was criminalising the parliamentary party that invited international delegations to the elections – was somehow suspicious.

For decades, Kurdish languages were banned language in Turkey, and people faced fierce backlash for speaking them, even in the home. They are still not official languages, despite more than 10 million native speakers inside Turkey.

In northern Kurdistan, when I told people I lived in Scotland, they often smiled and asked me if I had seen Braveheart. Many Kurdish people related to the struggle for Scottish independence.

Gülşen Koçuk, from the heavily criminalised women’s independent media Jin News, told us: “Kurdish women and Kurdish people are fighting bravely in the region for freedom. Other countries should fight in the same way. Everyone needs to amplify their objections, and everyone needs to be brave against what is wrong.”

We can start by advocating for the legitimate right to democracy for the Kurdish people – starting from the decriminalisation of Öcalan’s political philosophy both here and internationally, holding our own governments to account for their

role in propogating authoritarianism, and demanding international pressure for the release of thousands of political prisoners languishing in Turkish jails.