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As some 200 people assembled in London on Saturday, 20 January at the conference organised by Solidarity with the People of Turkey (SPOT), Turkish war planes launched air strikes on Afrin, one of the three Kurdish cantons in Northern Syria. It marked the launch of a military operation with the support of the Free Syrian Army and cynically named operation ‘Olive Branch’.

Held at the headquarters of the National Education Union, the conference included workshops and panels made up of participants from Turkey and Britain, covering a wide range of topics. The morning session workshops featured strengthening women’s resistance against the back ground of declining women’s human rights and gender inequality, solidarity with academics, teachers and scholars at risk and political representation and the role of the UK parliament.

Speakers at the political workshop drew attention to the attacks on opposition members of the Turkish parliament (especially members of the pro-Kurdish party the HDP) which have been stepped up since the failed coup of July 2016, the removal and detention of many elected mayors in the Kurdish and south eastern region of Turkey and their replacement by un-elected administrators. Local administrations run by the main opposition party the CHP have also been targeted.

Panel member and Tottenham MP David Lammy, whose constituency has a high number of Kurdish residents, condemned the British government’s sale of arms and aircraft to Turkey. According to a Guardian report (22 January 2017) “…between 1 July and 30 September 2016, the UK sold Turkey £26m-worth of ML13 licences, which relate to exports of armoured plate, body armour and helmets. In addition, Britain sold Turkey £8.5m-worth of ML10 licences, for aircraft, helicopters and drones, and almost £4m-worth of ML4 licences, for missiles, bombs and ‘counter-measures’. Since 2015 the UK has sold Turkey £330m-worth of arms. The country is on the Department for International Trade’s list of ‘priority markets’ for arms exports…”

The Tottenham MP said that in the light of the July 2016 crackdown and state of emergency, pressure must be put on the government and that he and colleagues were intending to call for another parliamentary debate on the matter

Workshops in the afternoon session covered attacks on workers and trades unions, what next for Turkey in the Middle East and the Kurdish question and journalism and the role of the media. Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world with some 150 journalists in prison and speakers with personal experiences outlined the extent of the crackdown on media and social media which had been stepped up since the failed coup of 16 July 2016. Speaking in the session I outlined the solidarity work done by the International and European Federations of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists in Britain and Ireland, and of my personal experiences in observing trials of journalists  in Turkey and visits to newsrooms where journalists were often under threats of violence and closure.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I learned was of current personal threats to journalists and others living in exile. At least one well know journalist living in exile in Germany faced death threats and was now under constant guard, while in the same country it was reported earlier this month that Kurdish footballer Deniz Naki was in fear for his life after being shot at while driving along a motorway. He had left Turkey after being subject to a racist attack in Ankara for expressing support for the Kurds. Leaked intelligence reports have revealed possible assassination attempts on high profile Turkish and Kurdish opposition figures such as academics and journalists living in Europe and especially Germany who have spoken out against the Turkish government.

All left the conference united in their determination to step up solidarity action and widen future campaigns with a call for unity in action to help bring about the restoration of human and trade union rights, democracy and peace in Turkey; and  an end to the never ending state of emergency which threatens the very fabric of society by paving the way for authoritarianism and dictatorship.