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TT seeks bail for 8 Caracas detainees

By Andre Bagoo Saturday, April 5 2014

TRINIDAD and Tobago has lodged an appeal of a ruling by Venezuelan authorities in relation to eight Muslim men who remain detained in that country after reported action by the Venezuelan Intelligence Service on March 19, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran said yesterday.

In a statement to Parliament which made no reference to reported allegations of links to terrorism, Dookeran said the appeal of the ruling under which the men are detained without bail is expected to be heard “in ten to fifteen days”.

The Foreign Affairs Minister, however, said the matter was “still under the investigatory process” by the head of a team of seven persons who travelled to Caracas on March 27.

“The matter is still under investigatory process and Rear Admiral Kelshall and I will continue to maintain regular contact with our Ambassador in Caracas in this regard,” Dookeran said. He stated while the issue – which involves a group of persons who were reportedly in the process of obtaining entry clearance to Saudi Arabia for the purpose of hajj (pilgrimage)– has caused much “anguish”, Trinidad and Tobago would comply with all Venezuelan laws.

“I empathise with those persons who have been affected,” Dookeran said. “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.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs said the State would support all citizens “who in their lawful pursuits” are impacted.

Dookeran gave an account of the facts surrounding the issue. He said on March 19, a total of 23 citizens were detained by the Venezuelan Intelligence Services.

“I have been advised that those persons who were detained by the Venezuelan authorities traveled there to obtain visas to visit Saudi Arabia,” Dookeran said. He said the Ministry, through the embassy in Caracas, and the Minister of National Security have been collaborating in attempts to have the nationals returned.

Dookeran said he had been in touch with Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elias Jose Jaua Milano. The Tunapuna MP said with the authorisation of Prime Minister Kamla Persad- Bissessar, a team of seven persons, headed by Kelshall and including “legal and intelligence officers” travelled to Caracas on March 27 and March 28.

The team was mandated to assist on several issues including retrieval of an unspecified number of passports of persons who entrusted them to persons coordinating trips for umrah (small hajj).

The team was also mandated to: establish the facts surrounding detention of Trinidad and Tobago nationals; assist in the ongoing enquiry if possible by providing clarity to concerns of the Venezuelan Intelligence Agency; negotiate for the release of women and children being detained; identify problems leading to conflict if present. The mandate also included establishing a mechanism for further liaison and mutually beneficial exchange of information in the future with the vision to avoid conflict through lack of understanding of Venezuela criteria.

At the end of its mission, the team secured the release of 15 women and children all who, the minister said, had returned home.

With respect to the eight detained persons, Dookeran said, “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 ten to 15 days.”

Dookeran also took the opportunity to outline the practices currently in place in relation to the obtaining of visas to Saudi Arabia.

The Minister noted that while diplomatic relations were established in July 1974, currently the Embassy of Saudi Arabia at Caracas is accredited to Trinidad and Tobago. The Trinidad and Tobago equivalent is located at Uganda. The process of appointing honorary consuls for both countries is ongoing.

“Over the years, nationals of Trinidad and Tobago have travelled to Caracas to apply for visas to visit Saudi Arabia for hajj,” Dookeran said. He noted in recent years arrangements have been in place to have immigration officers from Saudi Arabia travel to Trinidad and Tobago to process applications. Last year, three officials were sent from Saudi Arabia.

“It should be noted that the pilgrims are required to adhere to specific guidelines outlined by that said government for the issue of visas,” Dookeran said.

He said he met with Saudi Minister in the Ministry of Justice Fahad Al Dawood. Among topics discussed were the strengthening of economic relations and the increase in visa allocations for the purpose of the hajj. He said this year Saudi Arabia is expected to send more immigration officers to process visa applications and a public announcement is to be made once confirmed.

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