British journalist held by police at Luton airport for five hours without arrest | UK security and counter-terrorism

A British freelance journalist who previously worked in the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria was held by counter-terrorism police at Luton airport for five hours without being arrested last month under controversial powers of detention.

Matt Broomfield, 29, said he was met by police as he got off a plane from Belgrade with his girlfriend on 24 August and was taken aside for questioning, where he was asked “do you consider your reporting objective” and his opinions of the British state. Police told Broomfield they were engaged in “a mopping up operation”. They seized his phone and laptop and have since refused to return them. After the questioning ended, he was allowed to proceed and no police action has followed.

Broomfield was detained under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, used routinely by counter-terrorism officers to question people at airports for up to six hours at a time. Police say it is a tool to keep the public safe, but critics say the power is overused to the point of harassment.

The National Union of Journalists has written on Broomfield’s behalf to Matt Jukes, the policing lead for counter-terrorism, to ask for a justification for his detainment in the absence of criminal proceedings, and for his computer and phone to be immediately returned.

Officers focused on Broomfield’s writing, much of which is sympathetic to the Kurds, and a three-year period ending in 2020 when he ran a news and information service in Kurdish-controlled north-east Syria. “They asked who I had met and interviewed,” he said.

Broomfield was held for two months in Greek migrant detention centres in 2021 after being denied permission to cross the border into Italy. He was told he was banned from the EU’s Schengen area at the request of Germany, which he believes was because of his media and advocacy work.

He was flown to the UK where he was subjected to a schedule 7 stop. After that, Broomfield, who is now based in Belgrade, says he was allowed to re-enter the UK “several times” without issue – until the latest stop last month.

Kurdish soldiers were instrumental in the defeat of Islamic State in north-east Syria in 2019, with air support from the US and UK, and remain in effect in control of the region. Turkey has long been hostile to the Kurds, who aspire to their own state based on territory in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Broomfield said: “It seems clear the Schengen ban and my harassment by the UK police are driven by direct or indirect pressure from Turkey, on the basis of my work and reporting in Rojava and around the Kurdish issue.”

He said the UK should have no interest “in the anti-democratic prosecution of legitimate journalism”.

British Kurds told the Guardian they were routinely stopped under schedule 7. Ali Gul Ozbek, 58, a pharmacist from Friern Barnet, north London, and a former mayor of Haringey council, said he had been stopped every time he went abroad since around 2012, both on the way out and on the way back.

The most recent stop was in July when Ozbek, a British citizen, went to visit his uncle in Geneva, Switzerland. “It is a form of torture. They ask the most basic questions that could be answered by a primary school student. I am an ordinary Kurd, I do not have any link with any Kurdish political organisations.”

Official figures show 2,498 people were stopped under schedule 7 powers in the year to 30 June, down 6% from a year before. The detainees are a wide range of people, including those with the loosest of links to the Kurdish movement.

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Ann Marie Davies, from Cardiff, was detained by counter-terrorism police for about four hours at Bristol airport in July as she returned from a holiday in Portugal, her first since the Covid pandemic, with her husband and teenage daughter.

“I asked the police why my passport was flagged and they said they didn’t know. The questions were very broad: they asked why I was interested in human rights. But they also asked whether I supported the PKK [a Kurdish political party banned in Turkey] and I said I didn’t and I didn’t support terrorist organisations,” she said.

Davies, who trains medical students, believes she was stopped because “I sympathise with the Kurdish cause in a general sense” and because she was involved in organising a Kurdish cultural event in Cardiff last November. Police took her DNA and photograph; her phone and Kindle were searched before she was allowed to leave.

The Home Office said schedule 7 enabled officers to stop, question, detain and search a person to determine whether they are or have been involved in terrorism. “Examinations have been instrumental in securing evidence to convict,” a spokesperson said.

Iida Kayhko, a doctoral researcher in security studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, said the belief in the British Kurdish community was that UK police were reflecting pressure from Ankara after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election victory in May, which has reinforced Kurdish repression within Turkey.

“It would seem that British counter-terrorism policing is being made use of to pursue the Erdoğan government’s aims of stifling Kurdish political expression,” she said.


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