By Abdul Hakeem
As you read this article presently, it is now over 650 days that five Muslim men – citizens of this country – have been detained in Venezuela on suspicion of terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the government of President Nicolas Maduro. They have not been charged for those crimes however, yet they remain prisoners without any certainty as to when or if they will be released.
One of the main persons working feverishly behind the scenes to secure the men’s release is Mr Umar Abdullah, head of the Waajihatul Islaamiyyah organisation. The Muslim Chronicle caught up with Mr Abdullah to inquire about the situation of the five men, and we were given a full run down of how events have unfolded since the initial detention back in March 2014.
On the 19th March 2014 twenty-five Muslims – men, women and children, were arrested in Venezuela on suspicion of terrorism. Among them was one Guyanese national and one naturalized Venezuelan of Haitian origin. Four women and eleven children of those initially arrested were released on March 25th and they were sent back to Trinidad on March 28th.
The government of Trinidad and Tobago dispatched a mission headed by Rear Admiral Richard Kelshall – then National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago – to look into the matter on March 27th. Mr Abdullah however claims that the visit of Admiral Kelshall and his team only made matters worse for three of the detained men who were previously arrested here in Trinidad and Tobago back in 2011 during the infamous state of emergency for a supposed plot to assassinate the then Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar.
The arrested men were able to secure legal representation, and after 45 days – the maximum allowed under Venezuelan law to detain someone suspected of terrorism without charge – four of the men, three of whom were identified as Imams – the other a Guyanese national, were released and the three Imams returned to Trinidad. Six other men, five of whom are nationals, remain in the custody SEBIN (the Spanish acronym for “Bolivarian National Intelligence Service”). The men are: Wade Charles, Dominic Pitlal, Leslie Daisley, Asim Luqman and Andre Battersby.
They are reportedly being held at a SEBIN facility in Caracas, Venezuela which mainly houses political prisoners and persons accused of terrorism. This facility, Mr Abdullah admitted, is not like a regular Venezuelan jail for ordinary criminals. The detained men are not confined to the squalid cells that one may typically associate with a third-world jail. He revealed that the detained men have the freedom to move around the compound of the facility, perform their five daily prayers and even interact with other inmates. However, despite their relative “freedom”, Mr Abdullah mentioned that the men have experienced difficulties during their detention.
For one thing, the matter of the men’s sustenance was an issue. The Muslim Chronicle heard that applications were made to the relevant authorities in Venezuela requesting that ‘halaal’ meals be provided for the men, however their requests were ignored. Hence, the families of the detained men had to foot the expense of procuring the services of a cook to prepare meals in accordance with Islamic dietary standards. In addition to this expense, Mr Abdullah says that a large amount of money has also been spent on legal fees and travelling regularly to and from Venezuela to try and secure the men’s release.
Mr Abdullah claims that the former People’s Partnership administration were giving the families of the men a run-around. A letter was sent by the families of the men to the Prime Minister at the time, Mrs Kamla Persad Bissessar, requesting the support of her government in the matter. The matter, we were told, was then referred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which in turn referred the matter to the Ministry of National Security.
According to Mr Abdullah, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Winston Dookeran, did not show any great enthusiasm in looking into the matter and hence did not render the level of diplomatic support that would have been necessary at the time if the men’s release were to be secured. The one government official who showed any real interest and made definite moves toward having the men returned to Trinidad, Mr Abdullah says, was the then Minister of National Security, Mr Gary Griffith.
The Muslim Chronicle was informed that the families of the affected men are now out of options, and they are hoping that the newly installed PNM administration would make more meaningful headway in this matter which he described as an “unfortunate situation.” Mr Abdullah also mentioned that the lawyers representing the men have advised that the matter be escalated to the level of diplomacy, since – according to him – it is a “100% political matter”, and there was not much to be achieved at the level of the Venezuelan court system, especially considering that many of their efforts thus far to have a court hearing on the matter have been frustrated.
What about the support from the Muslim community at home?
We were informed that financial assistance has been forthcoming from individuals and organisation within the local Muslim community. However, with the cost of providing for the men’s upkeep and the payment of legal fees amounting to over US $300,000 thus far, the future provision of financial support is fast becoming untenable. This, Mr Abdullah said, underscored the urgency of the matter.
The Muslim Chronicle was also informed that the men’s plight was raised at a conference of Islamic organisations within the Latin American and the Caribbean regions held in Turkey from November 12th to 17th in 2014. Mr Abdullah also mentioned that meetings were held with the head of the Arab Diplomatic Corps, and Malaysia and Turkey have come forward to offer asylum to the detained men should they be released and choose not to return to Trinidad and Tobago for fear of political persecution. He even mentioned that the Anglican archdiocese in Venezuela became actively involved in assisting with efforts to have the men released, to the extent that letters have been written to human rights bodies to try and bring international attention to the matter.
However, all these efforts thus far have not borne any fruit and the men remain as prisoners in a foreign country without charge and for crimes that the prosecution is yet to provide solid evidence to support.