Jamie Williams, a 28-year-old Melbourne man, was remanded in custody on July 27 after being charged by the Melbourne Joint Counter Terrorism Team for attempting to leave Australia on December 28 to travel to northern Iraq and fight with Kurdish forces against the Islamic State and Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Green Left Weekly’s Zane Alcorn spoke to Rob Stary, who has been representing Williams in this case, about the anti-terror laws and the Kurdish liberation struggle.
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We've recently seen the Turkish government reignite its war on the Kurds for what appears to be domestic political reasons. This return to a war footing may now give the Australian government the political pretext to imprison people like Jamie Williams for life. What can Australians do about this?
Well, I think clearly we are moving to the position where the continued proscription by the Australian government of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation is untenable.
I think it is increasingly being recognised that the struggle for Kurdish autonomy is one with strong historical, cultural, linguistic and ethnic bases in the same way the Tamil struggle was in Sri Lanka.
What we need to do, of course, is to agitate with our politicians that further proscription on the PKK is not warranted. As you know, the West has now provided both military and material support for the Kurdish struggle in both Syria and Iraq. So there are various tensions, inconsistencies and contradictions in our attitudes towards the Kurdish people and the Kurdish struggle.
You've signed a petition to remove the PKK from the Australian government’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations. What is it about the nature of the Kurdish struggle and the nature of the PKK that distinguishes them from an actual terrorist organisation?
Well, they're not a terrorist organisation to begin with. There are about 40 million Kurds spread across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran and it is only by a historical colonial fiction that Kurdistan wasn't recognised as an independent state early in the twentieth century.
I've signed the petition because I acknowledge that the Kurdish struggle is a legitimate one based on cultural, historical, linguistic and other valid reasons and the PKK, however vilified it may have been, is effectively the umbrella representative organisation of the Kurdish people.
While there is cooperation between Turkey and the US in attacking ISIS, there is discomfort among Turkey’s Western allies about its attacks on the Kurds. Isn't it a bit contradictory for the Australian government to take such a strong stance with regard to Australian civilians assisting the Kurds, people like Jamie Williams, and yet turn a blind eye to the Turkish government seemingly assisting ISIS?
Well it's full of contradictions and there's no logical analysis as to why Australia has taken the position it has. As I said, we have effectively embraced the Kurds — the whole West has embraced the Kurds in their struggle against ISIS.
But there are other internal ramifications in Turkey with the 20 million Kurds who live there. Turkey is a member of NATO and is waiting to get into the European Union. The west wants to see it as an ally, while it also understands that the Kurdish people have the right to autonomy and self-government.
These tensions arise, but at the end of the day Australia effectively follows US and British foreign policy. If we are told to embark upon a process of proscription as we have, then we will do that. We don't assert any independent assessment of the relevance or legitimacy of the Kurdish struggle. Why else would we have been in the failed wars of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Many people would argue that the invasion of Iraq in particular was illegal and a war crime, and there were some Australians at the time who went to Iraq to be part of a human shield protest. They weren't taking up arms but were occupying civilian buildings and making it clear they were there. Would that sort of thing be illegal under this new legislation?
The real vice in the anti-terror legislation in Australia is that the net is cast so widely that it would now prohibit you supporting any self-determination struggle in the world.
You could not now, for instance, support the East Timorese people’s struggle for independence from Indonesia; you couldn't support the African National Congress; you couldn't support the Kosovars. You certainly can't support the West Papuan freedom movement. That would all be now unlawful under the current anti-terrorism legislation.
So what the legislation has done now is to effectively outlaw providing financial or other support, or advocacy on behalf of those self-determination struggles, however legitimately-based they are.
There is also an inconsistent application in all of that. We say nothing, for instance, about Australians who go and fight in the Israeli Defence Forces in the unlawful invasions of southern Lebanon and Gaza. So the real problem, the real other vice in this legislation is that it is inconsistently applied and depends on the political will of the day.
So, in terms of your legal perspective, how should legislation address this question of solidarity with foreign struggles?
Well, the legislation was originally passed after 9/11 and commenced in July 2002. A lot of the legislation had sunset clauses. But with bipartisan support now the legislation is being enshrined permanently, and we need to go through a process of repealing the legislation, for instance, that prohibits advocacy or support, financial or otherwise, for those organisations.
As an example there are various struggles on our doorstep — the West Papuan movement is the most obvious one. We should be entitled to support an independence struggle for the West Papuans, but as it currently stands, and in a bipartisan way, we are not entitled to do that.
So there has to be an examination of the legislation, and it needs to be pared back. George Williams from the Australian National University has said there is overreach. There has been a study in Columbia University in New York that says there's an overstatement of issues; there's overreach in the legislation and the penalty provisions imposed on people convicted are disproportionately harsh.
In Britain — just going back to the unlawful invasion of Iraq — there was the Chilcot Commission where Tony Blair tried to justify the invasion, even on the basis of regime change in Iraq. At least in Britain and in the US there were various commissions of enquiry.
We have nothing in Australia. We just ignore not only the political and moral reality of the unlawfulness of what we've done, but we also ignore the legal reality as well.
I have advocated, as have many other people, that those who supported the invasion of Iraq on a completely false pretext ought to be brought to account. That hasn't happened, but I remain the eternal optimist.
The Pinochet regime was ultimately brought to account, so it takes the long perseverance of organisations such as 3CR [community radio] and Green Left Weekly to play a critically important role in exposing the injustices that have taken place.
Trade unionist and former president of the Northern Territory Labor Party, Matthew Gardiner, was interviewed by the Australian Federal Police after he returned from a stint assisting the Kurds. Has Gardiner faced charges that you're aware of or is he likely too?
No, I'm not aware, and I'm not precisely sure what Gardiner did: whether he was involved in military support or in advocacy or financial support.
Williams was interviewed in December last year and not charged until July of this year. So there was a long period in which the authorities compiled evidence and they may be doing that for Gardiner.
You want the law to apply equally to all people as a general principal, but this is a bad law and it shouldn't be applied to anyone who is supporting the Kurdish struggle. The irony is that our enemy's enemy is our friend and the West is claiming that our friend is the Kurds. Curiously Britain has chosen not to charge people in Williams' position and our laws are largely reflective of the British situation.
So it seems as if the laws are there, but if the social movements and agitation exists, they may not be applied…
I think that's definitely true in Britain and hopefully, with more exposure and more agitation, it should be the case here as well.
[This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted for Green Left Radio on July 31. Listen to Green Left Radio live each Friday 8 to 8:30am, in Melbourne on 855 AM or 3CR Digital and from anywhere via < www.3cr.org.au/streaming>, or catch the latest show here. You can also sign the petition to lift the ban on the PKK.]