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26 February 2007

Free Ocalan … or should that be Borat?

You can't beat terrorism by banning parliamentary book launches

By Mark Thomas

I’m paraphrasing my friend Bob Boyton when I say that politicians are like dog crap – every now and then you have to tread in them. The Channel 4 political awards, recorded a few weeks ago and attended by some 200 odd MPs, was the televisual equivalent of Crufts front lawn.

Steaming piles of our elected representatives littered the Channel 4 cafeteria demurely swigging the free wine, and – for a second or two – I did wonder if Bin Laden ever did requests. Uncertain if vocalising that thought constitutes glorifying acts of terrorism I kept it from the assembled hordes.* This was not the only brush with the anti-terror law I was to have that evening…

The badge on my shirt wasn’t very large, an inch in diameter perhaps, featuring a colour photo of a middle-aged man, with eastern looks, black hair and a thick moustache. A week earlier my local vicar had seen me wearing the same badge and took me secretively into a corner and in hushed tones, looking around to make sure no-one was listening, pointed at it.

“Loved it.” He said in a very Church of England way.

“Pardon?” I said.

“I saw that film and loved it,” he said, jabbing his finger at the badge again. “One shouldn’t laugh really at stereotypes but I loved it.”

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“It’s not Borat,” I said, realising what he was talking about.

“What? It’s not Borat?”

“No, it’s Abdullah Ocalan.”

“Who?”

“Kurdish guerrilla leader.”

“Oh is it, well, he looks frightfully like Borat… Are you sure it is not Borat?”

Mr. Ocalan is the jailed leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Without doubt the PKK has committed acts of terrorism, just as it has also committed acts of self-defence against a military onslaught from the Turkish authorities. In 1998 Ocalan was kidnapped from Kenya and then put on trial in Turkey. In 1999 he was sentenced to death. In 2002 Turkey abolished the death penalty and imprisoned Ocalan for life on the small island of Imrali. He is the only prisoner in the jail. He inhabits a 13 square-metre cell which is illuminated 24 hours a day. He is one of the few people in the world for whom singing the Star-Spangled Banner in front of an American rodeo crowd of 10,000 rednecks would be light relief.

“Surely,” you may ponder, “wearing a badge bearing this man’s image cannot be construed as glorifying terrorism.” On the contrary, at the behest of the Turkish authorities Jack Straw, then home secretary, included the PKK on the proscribed organisations list, in effect banning the PKK. At the time the PKK had formally disbanded, leaving Mr. Straw a relatively easy ban to enforce.

Now consider this. The Welsh Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd was to host a book launch in Parliament on 20 February. The book, “Prison Writings: The roots of civilisation”, is published by Pluto Press and is written by Abdullah Ocalan, and the book was Ocalan’s submission to the European Court of Human Rights.

The invites were sent, the room was organised, when out of the blue the Serjeant at Arms office phoned Mr. Llwyd’s office saying that the book launch shouldn’t go ahead as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had sent a letter to him informing him that Mr. Ocalan was a terrorist and muttering about how it could be “glorifying acts of terrorism”. So it was that the FCO managed to cancel a Parliamentary launch of a legal submission to the European Court of Human Rights. All of which seems a little, well, nuts really. You can’t beat terrorism by banning book launches.

So in the current “war on terror” climate, I offer readers the chance to download an offending Ocalan badge, to print out and wear. So you too can wear a potentially illegal badge with pride… safe in the knowledge that if the police decide to arrest you for it, you can cite the Borat defence.

* I am not sure if there is a collective noun for politicians but if there isn’t one may I suggest a “cable of MPs”.

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