Turkey Briefly Detains, Questions British Politician Close To Kurds

Government questioning of anyone in sensitive areas of Turkey's Kurd-dominated southeast is now routine, an official told HuffPost.
Scenes from a protest against government-imposed curfews in the Kurdish region of Turkey.
Scenes from a protest against government-imposed curfews in the Kurdish region of Turkey.

WASHINGTON -- Natalie McGarry, a British parliamentarian who has advocated for the Kurdish population in the Middle East, was briefly detained in Turkey Thursday, her attorney confirmed following media reports.

"I can confirm that Natalie McGarry MP was questioned earlier on today," Aamer Anwer told The Huffington Post in an emailed statement. "It appears that a member of the Turkish Security Forces became alarmed as Natalie had her mobile phone out near a security check point." 

An official with the British Foreign Office confirmed that a British national had been detained and then released in Diyarbakir and that the U.K. was in touch with Turkish authorities over the matter.

Anwer said McGarry was in the Sur district of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's Kurd-dominated southeast (he had initially said McGarry was near Turkey's border, recording bombs dropping in Syria). 

"She was taken away for questioning and when it was explained that she was part of the GMB delegation and simply recording the sound of bombs falling, she was released. There will be no further statement and Natalie will be returning home soon," Anwer wrote.

The GMB is a trade union in the United Kingdom that has long spoken out in favor of Abdullah Ocalan, a controversial Kurdish leader who has been in Turkish custody since 1999. Ocalan, the chief architect of leftist Kurdish ideology popular in Turkey and Syria, remains an essential icon for millions of Kurds. The delegation McGarry was with was part of a campaign for Ocalan's freedom, according to Scottish newspaper The Courier. GMB officials did not immediately respond to a HuffPost request for more details on the delegation. McGarry also did not respond to a request for comment, but tweeted shortly after the incident.

McGarry, an independent politician from Glasgow who was previously associated with the leftist Scottish National Party, has been a vocal proponent of working with leftist Kurds against ISIS. 

Fatih Oke, press counsellor to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, told HuffPost he'd asked Turkish security officials specifically about McGarry's case but had yet to hear anything. But he added that it is standard practice for Turkish security to question people recording events in sensitive areas, such as the Sur neighborhood or the border with Syria.

The incident -- which is striking because it involves one NATO member harshly treating an elected representative from another one -- comes amid a bloody battle between the Turkish government and militant members of Turkey's millions-strong Kurdish minority. Sur in particular has seen heavy clashes.

Fighting between the two sides restarted last year following the end of a two-year ceasefire that had raised hopes for a lasting peace. Kurdish politicians in Turkey argue that the government now is deliberately harming civilians through long curfews and should resume negotiations with the largest Kurdish militant movement, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkey, the U.S. and the U.K. classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Human rights groups have documented scores of civilian deaths in the Turkish security operation, and journalists covering the conflict -- including reporters for Vice News last year -- have faced trouble from both government forces and the PKK. The United Nations said earlier this month that it was concerned by reports of unarmed protesters being killed. Scores of Turkish security officials have also died in attacks thought to be linked to militant Kurds, and the government connects the PKK to a bombing in the capital of Ankara this month that killed 29 people.

A representative from the pro-Kurdish HDP party in Turkey told HuffPost this month that he worried a full-scale civil war might break out if tough measures continue to be imposed on the population in the southeast and if anti-Kurd rhetoric remains popular.

Given the plight of the Kurds, oppressive measures by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the success of Kurdish forces against the so-called Islamic State group elsewhere in the region, some public figures in the West have suggested removing the PKK's terrorist designation and weakening ties with Turkey.

It's possible that this incident will give further weight to that argument. British politicians began to tweet Thursday after the news of McGarry's detention broke.

McGarry visited the radical Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava in the fall of 2015 for a summit that brought together leftist activists from around the world. Turkey views the leading party in Rojava, the PYD, as an extension of the PKK that must be treated as an equal terror threat. The U.S. has faced trouble from the Turks for working with the PYD's militia against the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey's president this week blasted the U.S. for what he described as a policy of classifying terrorists as "good" or "bad."

Analysts are worried about the split between Washington and Ankara. They say it could weaken the U.S's influence in the Muslim world and benefit actors like ISIS, which has repeatedly struck targets within Turkey, and Russia, which is wary of Turkey because of its role in the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad, a Russian ally.

Francis Ricciardone and Aaron Stein, of the Atlantic Council think tank, argued on Wednesday that the U.S. needs to work harder to end fighting between Turkey and the PKK and tell the PYD that continued support against ISIS depends on the party's keeping its distance from Kurdish militancy in Turkey. (Ricciardone was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey between 2011 and 2014.)

Feb. 15 marked the 17th anniversary of the arrest of Kurdish leader Ocalan. He has remained relatively active even within prison -- including by corresponding, via intermediaries, with an unlikely idol: American leftist Murray Bookchin, a man who found democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) too conservative. Bookchin is now celebrated throughout Kurdish areas. Last year, HuffPost made the Ocalan-Bookchin correspondence public for the first time.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the latest comment from the British government.