Australia should de-list PKK as a terrorist organisation

The PKK is widely supported by Kurdish people as a legitimate liberation movement but has also been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, Britain and Australia.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on November 22 that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was wrongly on its list of terrorist organisations between 2014-17.

The PKK is widely supported by Kurdish people as a legitimate liberation movement but has also been listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States, Britain and Australia.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton re-listed the PKK as a terrorist organisation in June. This decision was based on inputs from ASIO and the Australian Government Solicitor. The PKK was initially listed in 2006 following a visit to Australia by then Turkish Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

All other organisations re-listed in June were Islamist groups. The PKK and politically aligned groups in Syria are secular and a major military challenge to Islamic State (IS).

The federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) subsequently reviewed the latest re-listings and recommended the PKK listing be reviewed in 2020.

To be listed as a terrorist organisation, “the Minister must be satisfied on reasonable grounds that the organisation is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting in or fostering the doing of a terrorist act or advocates the doing of a terrorist act”.

In justifying his re-listing decision, the minister acknowledged that PKK armed activity “mostly consisted of bombings, armed assaults and attacks against infrastructure” and claimed that although the PKK directs its attacks against Turkish government and security force targets, “attacks by the group have treated civilian bystanders as acceptable collateral”.

In its submission to the PJCIS, Melbourne-based solidarity group Australians for Kurdistan (AFK) contested this latter claim and pointed out that the PKK and its armed wing’s engagement in “armed conflict with the Turkish national state, particularly its military and security forces”, does not in itself constitute terrorism “or satisfy the definition of terrorism or terrorist activity required for listing under the relevant legislation”.

AFK said the PKK “has never deliberately targeted civilians or engaged in indiscriminate violence” and that its targets are limited to “members of Turkey’s armed forces or other police or security forces of the Turkish state engaged in violent oppression of the Kurdish population and its political organisations”.

However, their submission concedes that “as in all armed conflicts, civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of armed activity by the PKK”, but that this “was never the PKK’s deliberate policy or intention”.

While the government records the fact that “an increase in the scale of PKK attacks” occurred in late-2015 and 2016, “with an expansion of the group’s areas of operation to include urban areas across Turkey”, it fails to give an explanation for this expansion.

However, the AFK submission explains this increase was “in response to an extremely violent, indiscriminate and ongoing campaign against the Kurdish population of Turkey by the country’s military and security forces … [such as] the February 2016 massacre of unarmed Kurdish civilians by Turkish military forces in Cizre [which] involved the deaths of hundreds of civilians, many of whom were burned alive while sheltering in basements ... just one example of a multitude of indiscriminately violent actions against the Kurdish population, which have collectively resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths over many years”.

In confirming the minister’s decision the PJCIS noted in its report: “A number of stakeholders questioned the reliability of foreign intelligence provided by the Turkish Government”.

For example Stary Norton Halphen (a law firm submitting on behalf of the Kurdish Democratic Community Centre of Victoria and the Democratic Kurdish Community Centre of NSW), in challenging Turkey’s reliability as a “source of information about the PKK”, explained that pro -Kurdish groups within Turkey are “political rivals of the Turkish government, which has a history of using terrorism allegations and charges as a means to restrict the right of Kurdish people in Turkey to political association and participation”.

Dr Vicki Sentas, from the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales, questioned the information provided by the Turkish government regarding the list of pseudonyms or additional names by which the PKK is also allegedly known.

Sentas highlighted the inclusion of TAK/Kurdish Freedom Falcons/Kurdish Liberation Hawks, and asserted that the Turkish government “characterises the TAK to be a PKK front that targets civilians in bombings on behalf of the PKK so it can plausibly deny responsibility”. She noted however that “the relative control that the PKK exerts over these other bodies is contested by security experts”.

In considering the human rights implications of re-listing the PKK, the Minister’s Explanatory Statement concluded that the regulations governing how the Act is to be applied “promote the protection of human rights” and declared that to the extent that they “may also limit human rights, those limitations achieve a legitimate purpose and are reasonable, necessary and proportionate”.

It was noted that in July 2016, one Australian was charged with being a member of the PKK. That person is the Kurdish-Australian journalist, Renas Lelikan. He admitted that charge, and has been on trial for allegedly being an illegal “foreign fighter” under the Foreign Incursions legislation.

Lelikan has denied engaging in any armed action while he travelled with PKK units. He said his role as a journalist was to document the Kurdish liberation struggle.

After deliberating for more than two weeks, the jury was discharged on December 6 after it failed to agree on a verdict.

A hearing on February 15 will be told if the prosecution intends to ask for a re-trial. In the meantime, Lelikan remains free on bail, with relaxed conditions.

Given the unreliability of information and the fallacious reasoning involved in the federal government's case for re-listing the PKK as a terrorist organisation, in the interest of political freedom there are clear grounds for the ban on the PKK to be lifted - and the sooner the better.