Several community leaders yesterday afternoon spoke out, demanding Government’s intervention and a swift resolution of the incident in which 19 Trinidadian Muslims remain detained in Venezuela.
Last Wednesday, a group of persons, including the Trinidad nationals, were arrested at the Plaza Hotel in Sabana Grande, Caracas. Three Trinidadian imams from mosques in Arima, Montrose and Munroe Road were among those held during the raid.
The Venezuelan authorities reportedly searched the hotel rooms of the Trinidadians and found military-style uniforms and jihadist videos, as well as US$102,000 in cash and 66 passports in the possession of one of the imams.
The imams had claimed they had come to Venezuela to secure visas at the Saudi Arabian consulate for Trinidadians who were going on a holy pilgrimage. Haj takes place in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in October.
Yesterday, CEO of the Islamic Broadcast Network and chairman of the Muslim Social and Cultural Foundation Inshan Ishmael said he believed the arrests were unjust and unfair, and he called for a speedy resolution to be made.
He said he “personally knew” the three imams who were detained and “he could put his head on a block for them” and believed this entire situation was just a severe misunderstanding.
“These men, women and children went to Caracas, on behalf of their brothers and sisters, in order to secure passports to make a holy pilgrimage. Now, to better understand the situation, in Islam, Muslims are required to make holy pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, and there is a Saudi Arabian consulate in Caracas where you can secure visas for this pilgrimage...
“Typically, in this country, you would go through a licensed person locally, but because the prices that these persons demand are so exorbitant, with fees that can easily exceed $60,000, most Muslims will find it extremely difficult to make this pilgrimage through persons with local licences. So they look elsewhere, and typically, the consulate in Caracas would be one such place. Hence, the presence of the imams.
“Despite whatever reports to the contrary, they were truly there to conduct business on behalf of 66 persons—hence the number of passports which were seized. And the money which was found was the cumulative money needed to secure the visas and other necessary items on behalf of all these people because it wouldn’t be economically feasible to have all 66 persons fly out to that country to conduct affairs which can be done by a select few,” Ishmael explained.
Ishmael noted the detention of the 19 men, women and children had been brought to his attention “about a week ago”, however, before the story broke exclusively on the Express and TV6 News, the foundation was trying to get the matter resolved “quietly and privately”.
Ishmael said that yesterday afternoon, he spoke with National Security Minister Gary Griffith on the issue and on how the Government intended to proceed.
“I have spoken to Mr Griffith, and he had indicated that the Government will be intervening as soon as possible to have the situation resolved. I believe the information I was given was that a team of officials and diplomats will be in Caracas by tomorrow (today).
“To this end, I must congratulate the National Security minister for his work and understanding for what he has done thus far and what he is trying to do to assist these men, women and children,” Ishmael revealed.
He also noted he had received certain information that the eight children who had been detained were expected to be released and sent back to this country “some time today”.
Ishmael said from the information he received, the detained persons had checked into the hotel before going to the bank to secure the appropriate currency. All the while, Ishmael said, the men and women were reportedly keeping to themselves.
For “whatever reasons”, he said, the authorities at the hotel viewed this action as suspicious and alerted police officials who came to the hotel and detained the individuals and seized their belongings.
“That explains the money and the passports. I was also told that the officers also seized a military-styled jacket and they obtained some ‘jihadist-styled videos’. But I’ve been informed that the jacket was not military at all but rather a pouch-laden photographer’s jacket, which one can get at several international outlets and even purchase online.
“Regarding the reports that they found certain jihadist-styled videos, I say let them explain and expand on what they meant by that because jihad, in Islam, simply translates to a struggle. A struggle of any kind but which is usually used to refer to spiritual struggles....”
Head of the Waajithatul Islaamiyyah, Umar Abdullah said he was appalled Trinidadian Muslims were detained in Venezuela, noting in October last year, he had written to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this very issue.
“I had made contact with the Foreign Affairs Ministry and was advised to go to the Ministry of National Diversity with my concerns. I did so and up to now, there have been no responses.
“I want this to be made clear because this organisation was very fearful of something exactly like what is happening now becoming a reality, and we were making several steps in the background to have this resolved and we were ignored.”