Following is the text of the statement delivered by the Foreign Minister Winston Dookeran in Parliament yesterday, dealing with the recent detention of Trinidad and Tobago Muslims in Venezuela.
As you may be aware, 23 citizens of Trinidad and Tobago were detained by the Venezuelan Intelligence Services on Wednesday March 19, 2014. I have been advised that those persons who were detained by the Venezuelan authorities travelled there to obtain visas to visit Saudi Arabia.
Mr Speaker, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through our embassy in Caracas and the Minister of National Security, has been attempting to have these nationals returned to Trinidad and Tobago.
In this regard, I have been in touch with my counterpart in Venezuela, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Elias Jose Jaua Milano. In addition, and with the authorisation of the Honourable Prime Minister, a team of seven persons headed by Rear Admiral Richard Kelshall and which included legal and intelligence officers, travelled to Caracas on March 27 and 28, 2014. The team was mandated to:
(i) Establish facts surrounding detention of Trinidad and Tobago nationals;
(ii) Assist in the ongoing enquiry, if possible, by providing clarity to concerns of the Venezuelan Intelligence Agency;
(iii) Retrieval of the passports of persons who entrusted them to persons coordinating trips for umrah (Small Hajj);
(iv) Negotiate for the release of women and children being detained;
(v) Identify problems leading to conflict, if present;
(vi) Establish mechanisms for further liaison and mutually beneficial exchange of information in the future; with the vision to avoid conflict through lack of understanding of Venezuelan criteria.
At the end of the mission, the team secured the release of 15 women and children, who have since returned to Trinidad and Tobago. With respect to the eight persons who are still in detention, our ambassador in Caracas has been liaising with the authorities to ensure legal access for the group.
The Venezuelan authorities have ruled that the defendants be held without recourse to bail. The Trinidad and Tobago Embassy is working with legal counsel and an appeal to this ruling has been lodged. I am informed that the appeal is expected to be heard in 10 to 15 days.
The matter is still under the investigatory process and Rear Admiral Kelshall and I will continue to maintain regular contact with our Ambassador in Caracas in this regard.
Mr Speaker, I have been advised that those persons who were detained by the Venezuelan authorities travelled to obtain visas to Saudi Arabia. I therefore would like to communicate the arrangements which have been put in place on this issue by the Government.
The Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia established formal diplomatic relations in July 1974. The embassy of Saudi Arabia in Caracas, Venezuela, is accredited to Trinidad and Tobago and the Trinidad and Tobago Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, is accredited to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Currently, we are in the process of appointing honorary consuls both in Trinidad and Tobago and in Saudi Arabia.
Over the years, nationals of Trinidad and Tobago have travelled to Caracas to apply for visas to visit Saudi Arabia for Hajj. In recent years however, arrangements have been made with the government of Saudi Arabia to have immigration officers from Saudi Arabia travel to Trinidad and Tobago to process applications for Hajj visas. Mr Speaker, last year the government of Saudi Arabia sent three officials to Port of Spain to issue visas for the 2013 Hajj. It should be noted that the pilgrims are required to adhere to specific guidelines outlined by that said government for the issue of visas.
Honourable Speaker, as recent as last week, I met with the Saudi Arabian Minister in the Ministry of Justice, His Excellency, Dr. Fahad AI Dawood, on his visit to Port of Spain. Among the topics discussed were the strengthening of economic relations and the increase in visa allocations for the purpose of the Hajj.
It is anticipated that for Hajj 2014, the government of Saudi Arabia will again send immigration officers to Trinidad and Tobago to process visa applications. As soon as the dates are confirmed, we will inform the public accordingly.
Mr Speaker, this issue has caused much anguish in our society, understandably so and I empathise with those persons who have been affected. However, in our relations with other states including Venezuela, while making representations on behalf of our citizens, we must also abide by the laws of that state. I assure you that all diplomatic efforts are being made and we will continue to provide support for citizens who in their lawful pursuits are affected by these developments.