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“I will not sleep until my son is returned,” said a mother of one of the eight T&T Muslims being detained in Venezuela under anti-terror laws, at a protest outside the Venezuelan Embassy in Port-of-Spain yesterday. Visibly shaking, Gloria Charles-John was in tears at the protest organised by Inshan Ishmael’s Muslim Social and Cultural Foundation which called on the T&T government to secure their prompt release from a prison in Caracas where the men are sharing the same cell.
Around 50 people from across T&T’s Muslim community gathered on Victoria Avenue as TV cameras and reporters scrambled to the scene. During the protest, Ishmael received a telephone call from Charles-John’s son Wade Charles, one of those detained, who is allowed a one-minute phone call at the discretion of prison staff. Hearing her son, Charles-John came to the front of the crowd to talk to him.
She then pleaded with the government to take action: “The government have to bring our children back home. I’m calling on the ministers to take them out of that country. My son is not a criminal.” Charles was travelling to Venezuela with his wife and three of his children (aged five, eight and 11) when they were all detained. All the women and children taken from the Plaza Hotel in Caracas on March 19 were deported and flown home last Friday after being incarcerated for nine days.
His mother said Charles’s large family in T&T were going hungry while he was away. “Don’t stop,” said Charles on the telephone, which was held up on speakerphone for the crowd to hear. “We would like to say thank you, we appreciate your support and we hope the government supports us as much as you all are. Keep us in your prayers, we need all the support we can get.” Officials at the Venezuelan Embassy in T&T were asked to comment on the protest taking place outside but declined to do so.
The state of emergency in the Venezuelan capital has added to the confusion. The Muslim men appeared in court alongside Venezuelans who had been arrested on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. Amidst heightened tensions caused by violent protests in Caracas, hotel staff became suspicious of the group of Muslims staying at the hotel and called the police who raided the hotel. Venezuela has a tiny, though influential, Muslim population of around 100,000 (0.4 per cent of the population), mostly Arabs of Middle-Eastern descent. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that amongst the group are several men who were accused of a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in 2011, accusations that were later found to be a hoax.
Ishmael said the men have had problems in every overseas country they have tried to visit since the accusations and he believes their files are marked by international security services. Damian Pitilal, brother of another detained man, Dominic Clive Pitilal (whose Islamic name is Jamal), addressed remarks to the PM, saying, “I would like to know why it is, Madam Prime Minister, that they cleared their names after the (assassination accusations), but in any country they have to travel to, there is a red flag over his head. “He is not a terrorist. Anybody who is in the Diego Martin masjid or any masjid around T&T will know that. I would like the necessary authorities to step in right away.” Pitilal was one of the 16 Muslim men detained on assassination plot in 2011 during the State of Emergency which targeted Persad-Bissessar and three Cabinet ministers.
The Muslim group played a role in freeing them, but, Ishmael says, the incident “went throughout the world, the names of these gentlemen were printed and red flags were sent through the TSA (the US-based Transportation Security Administration responsible for travel security) when they were detained in Trinidad. “No charges were ever laid, it turned out to be a hoax, but they now have a label and anywhere they go they are on the TSA system and red flags are raised at immigration. The US and Canada is totally out for them. So when governments and Interpol communicate now when they go into countries, Pitilal gets a red flag which should not be there. Their names should be cleared.” The Venezuelan intelligence service has claimed the large numbers of passports in the group’s possession are evidence of terrorist activity but Imam Rasheed Karim of Felicity mosque said the men are simply “collateral damage” of the civil unrest in the Latin American country. As to why some of the detained men have been in Venezuela for over two months, since late January, Ishmael said: “Visas are not a one-day process and if you are going to Venezuela a lot of people go to spend some time, socialise, relax and treat it like a vacation, because the visas take some time to process.”
MECCA Visit Halted
The group, which includes three well respected imams from masjids in T&T, were due to visit Saudi Arabia on an Umrah trip to Mecca last Tuesday. (The Umrah is a pilgrimage that can be taken at any time of the year). Hamza Mohammed of Montrose mosque was one of those organising the trip, the cost of which is $20,000 including visas. The group had 60 passports with them and $102,000 in cash, which was seized. It is unknown if the money will be returned. Mohammed is one of the men currently detained.
Similar situations have occurred before now. Mansoor Ali of Chaguanas, one of the protestors, told the T&T Guardian he and 48 others paid their money for a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2013 and travelled to Caracas to get visas from the Saudi embassy for the Hajj pilgrimage. The group was refused entry, their visas denied with no explanation and they were sent back to Trinidad. Ali was on the verge of tears recounting this story, saying: “You can imagine the humiliation. Many of the brothers and sisters were crying at what we went through. We go to Mecca for one purpose, to serve almighty God.”
‘We are doing all we can’
In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, Gary Griffith said he “wishes to reassure citizens that the Government of T&T has been doing everything that is diplomatically possible to assist the party of T&T nationals currently detained in Venezuela.” The statement noted that “family members of the detained persons would like to see a more accelerated resolution to the matter,” but that “the sovereignty of Venezuela must be respected and that all due investigations must be allowed to run their course with respect to the constitutional laws of Venezuela.”
He added that T&T applies the same procedure when foreign nationals are detained here so it would be “inappropriate for us to do more...it must be reciprocal to understand and respect Venezuela and what they are doing. Griffith said negotiations are favourable as evidenced by Venezuela accommodating, supporting and working with the T&T delegation on March 26. The statement confirmed the details of their detention, saying 19 were held on charges of “anti-terrorism, threats to national security and attempts to remove the government of the day, human trafficking and money laundering.”
Eight children and six adults were returned to T&T on March 29. The three imams release is “pending.” He said T&T will continue to lend full cooperation to facilitate the investigation process and that diplomacy is the only avenue in this situation.