From refugee to terrorist

From refugee to terrorist


Written by: CARF

In April, a huge police operation, with marksmen and helicopters, was launched to raid a Kurdish community centre in Haringey, north London.

Inside, embarrassed police found a Kurdish group rehearsing a Harold Pinter play about repression of Kurds. Someone had seen hooded armed men going into the community centre and the police, forgetting the advance notification they had of the rehearsal, assumed the Kurds were engaged in terrorist violence. Fortunately for the Kurds, on this occasion at least the police didn’t shoot first and ask questions later.

When the IRA announced a ceasefire on 31 August 1994, there was a general expectation that the emergency and anti-terrorist laws allowing the police to cordon off whole areas and stop and search vehicles, to detain people incommunicado for up to a week and to banish them into internal exile, would not be renewed. After all, the main law was called the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, and had to be renewed annually. But it was not to be. The draconian powers were kept intact, and used on different targets; no longer Irish, but ‘international’ terrorism was the justification for retaining powers which the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly condemned for infringing fundamental rights to freedom. And the police stop and search powers under the PTA were even extended in April 1996 to pedestrians within designated areas, who can now be stopped and searched at random.

Why did the leaders of the major parties agree not only to continue but also to expand these repressive measures? Because to the politicians and the racist opinion-formers, immigrants and asylum-seekers are a threat of the same order as terrorists, and merit the same response: extreme powers of prevention, detection and apprehension, with no regard to democratic or human rights.

Different countries, different threat

Different communities come in for special targeting in different European countries. In Britain it tends to be Middle Eastern people, from Palestine, Lebanon or the Gulf states, and Sikhs from the Punjab who are given the full anti-terrorist treatment, although in recent times, and under pressure from France and Germany, Kurds and north Africans have come under scrutiny too. Reem Abdelhadi, a Palestinian arrested twice under the PTA, describes her experiences overleaf. Karamjit Singh Chahal is treated as a terrorist suspect despite his acquittal on criminal charges, and has been in prison for over five years awaiting deportation to India, where he is likely to be tortured to death, on evidence he is not allowed to know, let alone challenge. Raghbir Singh, held at Winson Green prison in Birmingham for 18 months, is another Sikh ‘terrorist’ who has yet to hear what he is alleged to have done to merit deportation on national security grounds: the equivalent for non-British or Irish terror suspects to the PTA’s exclusion orders, with the same absence of real appeal rights.

In France, the main suspect community is the Algerians. In the clampdown on suspected Islamists in 1993, 2000 were rounded up and deported to Algeria, where some were never heard of again. Others were put on a charter flight to Burkina Faso, where they remain stranded, unable to return to France or to Algeria. Others still were placed under house arrest. Over a million were stopped and searched in the wake of the metro bomb in August 1995. What particularly enraged the Algerian community in France was the issue of three fake photofit pictures of north Africans even before the identity or nationality of the bombers was known, in a police public relations exercise designed ‘to reassure the public’. When the Swedish authorities refused to extradite a suspect with an unbreakable alibi the French did not conceal their fury; and France has also been leaning on Britain to clamp down on Islamist activists. Up to 800 Algerians remain detained without charge, their children taken by social services and their houses repossessed. An unknown number have been deported to Algeria, where they have been put in the notorious concentration camps in the Sahara desert or simply been killed. Now the UK is proposing that French expertise on dealing with Islamic extremists be drawn on in the creation of EU-wide counter-terrorist centres of excellence.


Algerian exiles accuse the French authorities of open collusion with the junta which has ruled Algeria illegally since depriving FIS of its election victory in 1991, for the sake of the huge reserves of oil and natural gas in Algeria. They refer to the banning of a book describing the excesses of the Algerian junta since 1991, the White Book on repression in Algeria, censored by Interior minister Debré early this year on public order grounds. This collusion makes a terrorist out of every dissident, out of every gang leader. Even Khalid Kelkal, a young French Arab killed by police in a gun battle in March 1996 near Lille, was posthumously elevated from ‘gang leader’ to ‘terrorist’, to justify his extrajudicial execution.

In Germany, it is the Kurds who are singled out as a suspect community. Germany, with France, banned the PKK and ERNK, the main Kurdish groups, in 1993 at the request of Turkish prime minister Tansu Ciller, who vowed to crush the Kurdish rebels within a year, and followed up the bans with vicious repression of Kurdish protests. Banned demonstrations are labelled a threat to public order, and ‘ringleaders’ are dealt with harshly. President Roman Herzog said in March 1996, referring to participation in banned demonstrations, that foreigners engaged in ‘violence and terror’ have forfeited the right to stay in the country; and a bill going through the German Bundestag makes deportation of those breaching the peace at banned demonstrations easier. Germany is also seeking the extradition of European Kurdish leader Kani Yilmaz from Britain, where he has been in top-security Belmarsh prison for 21 months, ever since coming from Germany (where he had political asylum) to a House of Commons meeting in October 1994.

Once more, Germany’s interests in cooperation with Turkey against Kurdish dissidents are obvious: German arms sales and trade links to Turkey. Germany is currently cultivating trade links with Iran, and is simultaneously clamping down on Iranian opposition activity in Germany. This is worrying Iranian refugees there, who fear an attempt to declare Iran safe, followed by attempted deportations. It is particularly frightening as the German internal security police enjoy close links with their Iranian counterparts.

Silencing dissent

For within the suspect communities, it is political activists who are the prime targets, and the true aim is often to silence them. Kani Yilmaz’ extradition is sought not because he is alleged to have committed any acts of terrorism, but for the leadership he gives to the Kurdish community in exile. In France too, it is leading Islamists rather than terrorists who find themselves in detention, under house arrest or deported. A leading activist of FAF (an Algerian solidarity group in France), Moussa Kraouche, is still under house arrest two years after it was disclosed that the evidence linking him with terrorism was false and probably planted by police. Mohammed Al-Masari was threatened with deportation to Dominica because of his peaceful but noisy dissident activities against the Saudi regime. In the wake of the Masari affair, the British government has announced plans for a new conspiracy law to prevent foreigners seeking asylum in Britain if their activities are considered detrimental to ‘national interests’. Such a move would contravene the Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees. Now the UK government is attempting to preempt criticism by fighting to change the Convention. At a meeting of G7 foreign and interior ministers, the UK argued that anyone deemed guilty of ‘planning, financing and incitement to terrorism’ be excluded from the benefits of the Convention. Such moves amount to a public declaration that commercial, diplomatic and arms links with refugee-producing countries take precedence over refugees’ rights to life and freedom.


But the safeguarding of commercial and diplomatic ties with repressive regimes by targeting refugee communities and activists is only part of the story. For the vote-mongering politicians of western Europe, an equally important element is the presentation of the ‘invasion’ of immigrants and asylum-seekers as a threat of the same order of magnitude as terrorists, justifying the same sort of emergency measures. We have become used to the imprisonment without trial of immigrants and asylum-seekers, to their routine fingerprinting, to the illegal immigrant intelligence units exchanging information: in short, to measures belonging to serious and urgent criminal investigations, being used on immigrants and asylum-seekers. An automated fingerprint-matching system to match the prints of all asylum-seekers anywhere in the EU and access personal data on them all, agreed by EU ministers in 1992, is well on the way to completion. EU ministers are planning a European Information System to collect, collate and exchange information on all immigrants or foreigners travelling or staying in any EU country. In the Netherlands, traditionally one of the more open societies, the government plans a central register which would make information on all foreigners available to all police and immigration officers. Such an internal scheme has been recommended for all EU countries by the European Council of Ministers.

In Italy, groups helping immigrants and asylum-seekers in the fields of health and welfare have called for an end to the ’emergency and public order approach to immigration’. But the opposite approach is currently rampant, and those groups helping immigrants and campaigning against racist immigration laws are finding themselves increasingly treated as if they were aiding and abetting dangerous criminals and terrorists. In Belgium on 23 March, police in Geel raided the homes of members of the political organisation ‘Truth’. The organisation, set up to tell the truth about imperialism and exploitation in Africa and to help refugees, has been accused of aiding illegal immigration to Belgium. Those arrested had their identity papers confiscated and were taken to the police station in windowless vans, like terrorist suspects.

And in Germany, the same law which is being invoked against Kani Yilmaz is being used in a show trial against the anti-fascist group Autonome Antifa (M), whose members are charged with ‘building and being members of a criminal organisation’. A five-year investigation of 143 suspected members of the organisation, during which almost 14000 phone calls were tapped in eight months, culminated in a massive police raid on 5 and 6 July 1994. The law, s129 of the Law of Assembly, was introduced over a century ago by Bismarck and does not require specific criminal offences to be proved. It has historically been used against perceived ‘enemies of the state’ such as organised workers, Communists and opponents of German rearmament.

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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