[By John Tully] On July 20 this year, Kurdish-Australian journalist Renas Lelikan was charged with membership of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. He was refused bail and has since been detained in Sydney’s Silverwater Prison. He returned to Australia last October after spending nine months trapped in the Makhmur refugee camp in Iraq after being denied a passport by the Australian government. If he is found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment.
Described by journalists as “Sydney’s toughest prison”, Silverwater is designed to strip inmates of their human dignity. Renas faces a possible wait of up to a year in this terrible place before his case comes to trial. His ordeal is made worse by threats by Islamic State supporters among the prisoners.
On July 31, Australians for Kurdistan member John Tully emailed the Attorney General, George Brandis, to urge the dropping of the charges against Mr Lelikan.
On August 22, Anthony Coles, the Assistant Secretary of the Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit, replied. His letter, along with Professor Tully’s response, sent on August 30, is reproduced below. The case against Mr Lelikan — and the PKK — is threadbare. Mr Lelikan must be released immediately.
Reply by John Tully, August 30
Dear Senator Brandis,
Again, an urgent appeal to drop the charges against Renas Lelikan
I am in receipt of a letter from your staff member Anthony Coles. Thank you for taking the trouble to reply to my original email. However, nothing in Mr Coles’ letter convinces me that Mr Lelikan should have been charged with any offence. More broadly, it remains patently obvious that the PKK is not and never has been a threat to this country. This, I should remind you, was the view of John Faulkner—one of Australia’s most senior and respected politicians—and his colleague Duncan Kerr, a former Attorney General and an eminent jurist. Kerr and Faulkner dissented from the parliamentary committee’s decision to place the PKK on the terror list and this was probably the first time that there had been such dissent. The PKK should be taken off the terror list and the preposterous charges against Mr Lelikan should be dropped.
Mr Coles states that the terror threat to Australia is “PROBABLE” (capitals and bold in the original). I have no argument with this. It is, alas, likely that one of the 19 Islamist groups on the government’s terror list will manage to carry out some atrocity in this country. Accordingly, I have no problem with the arrest and detention of, for instance, Mr Robert Cerantonio, the ISIS propagandist and recruiter.
However, it is a non sequitur to claim that because the PKK is also on the list, that Mr Lelikan is a threat to Australia and Australians. Mr Lelikan is a loyal Australian citizen who is not and never has been a threat to this country. Moreover, the organisation he is alleged to support is a relentless foe of those forces who indubitably wish Australians harm. Disturbingly, he has received death threats from Islamist goons in Silverwater prison.
The charges against Mr Lelikan and the listing of the PKK are simply absurd when you consider that the PKK and its sister organisations in Syria (the PYD, YPG and YPJ) are in the very forefront of the fight against Da’esh. Indeed they are the most effective fighters against those barbarians. You may also recall that it was the PKK and the YPG/YPJ who took the Yazidis to safety from Mt Sinjar—a fact, alas redacted from UN reports no doubt due to pressure from the Turkish government. It is very strange that Australia, the United States and the EU are happy to cooperate with the PYD in Syria, yet list the PKK as terrorist.
I urge you to think back to December 17, 2005, when the PKK was first placed on the terror list. It is no coincidence that this was done days after the visit to Australia of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was the Turkish Prime Minister at the time, and who is that country’s authoritarian President today.
For almost 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres, the Turkish state has oppressed the Kurdish minority; a minority, moreover, which was earlier promised its own state by the victorious Allies. The aim has been at all times to construct an ethnically “pure” Turkish state and society within the artificial boundaries drawn up by the Allies after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the founding event of the construction of that state was the genocide of the Armenian people and the massacres of Black Sea Greeks. This was followed by the infamous population transfer between Greece and Turkey. The fact that Turkish governments have prosecuted Turkish writers for relating the facts of the genocide speaks volumes. Since the inception of the Turkish state, too, the Kurds have been viewed as an alien presence to be forcibly assimilated. Their language and customs were banned, including the prohibition of Kurdish names which may contain letters unknown in the Turkish alphabet.
The Kurds have resisted and it is for this “crime” that the PKK has been listed as a terrorist organisation. In fact it is a resistance or national liberation organisation and is regarded as such by the majority of Australian Kurds, as John Faulkner and Duncan Kerr argued. I would draw your attention to two important facts, namely that the PKK has on numerous occasions attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with Ankara, and that it has dropped its original demand for independence in favour of the demand for autonomy within the Turkish state. This, you must agree, is a significant concession.
Unfortunately, Erdogan chose to sabotage that peace process in the run-up to last year’s general election. He did so at least in part because he was afraid that the opposition parties would arrest him and his cronies for graft and corruption. Since then, he has carried out what most observers agree is a “slow motion coup”. The election was scarcely free and fair but it delivered the AKP 49% of the popular vote and allowed Erdogan to repress his domestic opponents and embark on a bloody assault on the Kurdish districts of southeast Turkey. The attempted farcical coup against him served as the pretext for him to step up the repression.
This man, a dictator in all but name who lives in a 1100-room palace reminiscent of the Ottoman days, is a threat to any peace settlement in the Middle East. It was at his urging that the Australian government chose to put the PKK on the terror list. It is also incontrovertible that Erdogan, a “soft” Islamist himself, has aided and abetted ISIS and other vicious Islamist outfits in Syria and Iraq. The southern Turkish border has been porous for Islamist fighters and for the transport of oil for the black market to swell Da’esh’s coffers. Erdogan has not had any interest in fighting ISIS. Far from it, there is evidence that Turkish security has armed the group and given it sanctuary.
It is also perfectly clear that Erdogan’s illegal invasion of the Jarabulus region of northern Syria has little if anything to do with combatting ISIS. Rather, it is aimed at the PYD and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces. (Also allies of the US in the fight against ISIS). Erdogan’s forces entered a town suspiciously empty of ISIS fighters and installed its own bunch of Islamists masquerading as the defunct Free Syrian Army. In fact, these types are scarcely distinguishable from ISIS and according to the Kurdistan National Congress many ISIS fighters simply changed their uniforms
I must remind you that in times gone by, Australian, British, and American governments supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. Indeed, the US State Department listed the ANC as a terrorist organisation and labelled Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. Just as with the PKK, the ANC was never a threat to anyone except the racist regime in Pretoria. Indeed, if you would like an another analogy, under the Australian government’s definition of terrorism, the American Founding Fathers were terrorists for taking up arms against George III’s tyranny.
In conclusion, I would urge you to take the PKK off the terror list and to immediately drop the charges against Mr Lelikan. These matters are a source of great distress to the Australian Kurdish community, most of whom regard the PKK and its sister organisations as freedom fighters. As the community’s spokesmen pointed out after massive police raids in 2010, the Kurds are secular, and support women’s rights, multiculturalism and democracy. They are, I repeat, loyal citizens of this country. The arrest and incarceration of Mr Lelikan is simply one more slap in the face for them. I feel sure that John Faulkner and Duncan Kerr would agree.
Professor John Tully
College of Arts
Recent publications: The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber (2011); Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike (2014); Robbed of Every Blessing (2015); Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties: How American Indians Were Displaced by White Settlers in the Cuyahoga