Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Imams return home


‘A blessing’: Imam Sheik Hassan Hamid at Piarco International Airport yesterday. —Photos: ISHMAEL SALANDY



Quick exit: Imam Abdul Salaam, of the Marabella Mosque, who was in detention in Venezuela, arrives at Piarco International Airport yesterday.


Tears of joy, hugs, kisses and laughter shared among families and friends seeing each other after long journeys are typical scenes at the arrival lounge of Piarco International Airport.

And while yesterday was no different, there was an added element of poignancy and relief, as three imams, who had been detained by Venezuelan authorities, were reunited with their loved ones after being locked up in that country for almost 60 days.

Imam of the Montrose Mosque Hamza Mohammed, Sheik Hassan Hamid from Las Lomas, and Abdul Salaam from Marabella had barely walked out of Customs when they were overwhelmed by throngs of family and friends overjoyed to see the men return home safely.

Tears flowed freely as the men clung to their loved ones and applause and cheers echoed through the airport.

“I have to leave and return more often. I never get so much love in my life,” Hamid said jovially, as he returned hug after hug from well-wishers.

Salaam and Mohammed were more reticent, however. Salaam left the airport with his loved ones almost as soon as he exited Customs.

Mohammed, overwhelmed, weeped as he cradled his children’s faces; he declined to speak with reporters, except to say he was at a loss for words.

Hamid, who deli­vered a statement to the media on behalf of his colleagues, said it was a blessing to be reunited with their family, friends and all people of Trinidad and Tobago.

“Our prayers have been answered. Our concerns for our congregations and loved ones were on our minds always. We felt like we would never be able to see them again.

“Every day we would look forward to our phone calls with them, and that eased our fears,” he said.

The men, who had entered Venezuela separately between March 16 and 19, were detained on March 19, allegedly for plotting terrorist activities.

They were among 22 Trinidadians who had been taken into custody by the Venezuelan intelligence service, SEBIN (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional), in March after military-style uniforms, bullet-proof vests and jihadist videos were allegedly found in their hotel room.

On March 29, 14 women and children who had also been detained were released and allowed to return home.

The men have maintained they were in Venezuela to obtain visas for Muslim pilgrims to travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj (an annual pilgrimage that is considered a pillar of Islam, for which all able Muslims must participate in at least once) and Umrah (a similar pilgrimage that can take place year round).

Saudi Arabia does not have an embassy in Trinidad and Tobago, and its Caracas embassy has jurisdiction for T&T and visas are issued through there.

“For the first half of our detention, we thought we were forgotten, not knowing what was happening to seek our release. Although our families gave us reassuran­ces that the Government and lawyers were working hard on getting us released, we had no indication of it happening. At times, we lost trust in the messages to get us released because sometimes when we heard things were happening and they didn’t we were disappointed.

“It was frightening at times to be locked up in a foreign country where such unstable conditions exist, plus all the other challenges like the language barrier. This was indeed a trial that will always remain in our minds and will never be forgotten,” he said.

Asked to describe how they had been treated by Venezuelan authorities, Hamid, in good spirits, said his name, Hassan, meant “handsome” and if anyone were to look at him, they would see he was still handsome.

“We were treated well. No one was tortured or in any way treated badly, so we are thankful to those people across there for that. At no time we were treated badly,” he said.

He noted there are still five Trinidadians detained in Venezuela.

“We saw them before we left. They send gree­tings to you all. They are doing okay and need your prayers. They need all stakeholders to help free them because this charge is serious; we are glad and hope that we can make a contribution, a really serious contribution, to helping them get the same treatment we got, which is freedom,” he said.