British man who fought Isis in Syria has terror charges dropped

A former British soldier accused of attending terrorist training camps run by Kurdish militia fighting against Islamic State has had charges against him dropped.

James Matthews, 43, from east London, had pleaded not guilty to the charge of receiving instruction or training in Iraq and Syria on or before 15 February 2016 “for purposes connected to the commission of preparation of terrorism”.

At the time he was charged it was believed to be the first time that terrorism legislation had been used to prosecute someone who was helping a group that was also being assisted by the UK government.

The decision to drop the charge came after the prosecutor, Tom Little QC, told the Old Bailey that the crown had concluded there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction on evidential grounds.

Matthews’ lawyer said his client was happy with the decision but that he was entitled to a full explanation of what had happened.

“We have always said the decision to prosecute Mr Matthews for fighting with the YPG against Isis was extraordinary and totally unjustified,” said Joel Bennathan QC, Matthews’s lawyer.

“Mr Matthews is happy this has now come to an end .. [he] was always open about what he had done and it is baffling that the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] took two years to decide to prosecute him, then seven months later they have suddenly realised there is not enough evidence to do so.

“After two-and-a-half years, we suggest Mr Matthews is entitled to a full and proper explanation of what has happened here and invite the court to direct that should be done.”

Matthews’s solicitors, Birnberg Peirce, also said the attorney general should provide parliament with an explanation as a matter of urgency and suggested that the UK’s geopolitical and business interests were entwined with the case.

“He was accused of attending a terrorist training camp organised by the YPG, an entirely lawful Kurdish organisation,” the lawyers said. “There never was a credible case of terrorism to be made against Mr Matthews, either factually, morally or legally.”

The lawyers noted that when Matthews was arrested the YPG was a “politically necessary ally of the UK” but by the time of the charge it was not.

“Political calculations had changed as the YPG had by then all but defeated Isis,” they said. “Turkey, an avowed opponent of the YPG and any signs of a Kurdish independence movement, is an important market for British arms sales, perhaps ever more important in the current political climate.

“Was this the reason why the attorney general decided that an otherwise implausible prosecution be brought?”

Mr Justice Edis said: “The attorney general is ultimately responsible and is accountable to parliament for his function and I’m not sure the court ought to become embroiled in that.”

However a spokesman for the attorney general said: “The CPS is operationally independent and makes its decisions to prosecute independently of government.

“The decision to drop the case against James Matthews was taken independently by the CPS. The Attorney General does not decide whether or not to continue a prosecution. That is a matter for the CPS.”

Matthews joined Kurdish forces, the YPG, to fight against Isis in Rojava. All new recruits in Syria attend the YPG’s mandatory month-long training programme upon their arrival where they learn basic Kurdish, military tactics and are provided with a crash course in the YPG’s socialist and feminist ideology.

They are usually assigned to an infantry division, given a Kurdish nom de guerre and sent into battle after the scores of British men and one woman who volunteered to join the YPG since autumn 2014.

Most of them are questioned by counter-terror officers upon their return, but Matthews, along with another man, Aidan James – who is also charged with terror offences – were the first to be charged under the Terrorism Act.

The charges had suggested a fundamental shift in how the British government treated citizens who volunteered to fight Isis in northern Syria.

The YPG has been one of the most successful anti-Isis militias and played a key role in driving the jihadist group out of Kobanî, Raqqa and elsewhere. The UK, the US, France and other EU nations have provided military, financial and tactical support for the YPG since 2014.

However, the Turkish government staunchly opposes the group – largely due to fears that parts of Turkey with large Kurdish populations may attempt to secede – and has sought to undermine its credibility and pressurise western governments to consider returning volunteers as terrorists.

Bennathan said in February at the preliminary hearing that there was no guidance on whether people fighting with support from UK forces fall under the Terrorism Act.

The magistrate, Emma Arbuthnot, said: “This is a very unusual case. It’s certainly the first case this court has had in front of it, in numerous other alleged terrorism cases.”

Seven British nationals are believed to have been killed fighting with the YPG.

The Foreign Office has long advised British citizens against travelling to Syria. “As all UK consular services are suspended in Syria, it is extremely difficult to confirm the whereabouts and status of British nationals in the country,” a spokesperson said.


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