Monday, January 26, 2015

A foretaste of homegrown jihad


Images of five foreigners engaged in firearms practice on a Venezuelan National Police shooting range have raised some challenging questions. The Attorney General's Office is presenting a case of international terrorism. By Joseph Poliszuk

The Trinidadian Muslim community has denounced abuse and discrimination against the five male Trinidadian Muslims still incarcerated in a Sebin prison in Caracas. A protest outside the Venezuelan Embassy in Port of Spain was staged last April (Handout photo: V.S.)
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Saturday January 24, 2015  12:00 AM
Three Venezuelans and five Trinidadians will stand trial on January 26 under the suspicion of being involved in alleged Muslim terrorist activities in Venezuela.  After nine months in prison, the defendants will appear in court to face charges of terrorism brought against them by the Attorney General Office.

Suspicions of involvement in terrorist activities were further fuelled by cellphone images seized by SEBIN, Venezuela's Intelligence Service, allegedly showing a group of foreigners – one of them wearing a turban – in firearms training on a Venezuelan National Police shooting range.

The images were reportedly retrieved from a cellphone seized from one of the Trinidadian Muslims among the group of 22 that travelled to Venezuela from Trinidad and were later arrested in a raid in Caracas. Five are still detained, along with three Venezuelan nationals suspected of collaborating with the alleged terrorists.

It all started at a Caracas hotel. In the official story, as outlined in judicial file case AP02-P-2014-024284, a group of officers from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin) executed a search warrant on March 19 in the rooms occupied by the Trinidadians at the Plaza Hotel in Caracas. The warrant of search was based on anonymous phone calls denouncing a group of Trinidad and Tobago nationals who were in Venezuela.

The Sebin found two satellite phones, 20 mobile phones, two laptops, six tablets, army type uniforms, combat paraphernalia, firearm training paraphernalia, a police badge of the Chacao Police, and telephone video of several of the detainees in firearms training in Caracas, which the prosecution is now presenting as proof of crime in connection with an alleged case of international terrorism. But the matter is barely discussed in Venezuela.

News from Port of Spain

Several of the photos show the Trinidadians in profile while honing their marksmanship skills on a shooting range. They were caught on camera shooting alongside a Venezuelan officer wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the acronym UOTE, standing for Unidad de Operaciones Tácticas Especiales (Tactical and Special Operations Unit), a unit of the Bolivarian National Police. That was how it was determined that the firearms training had taken place in the heart of Caracas, at police facilities in the Caricuao parish.

The defense labels the accusations as preposterous. "Maybe the police officers involved deserve an administrative sanction for allowing them do the shooting practice," says Germán Ponte, the defense lawyer for Dominic Clive Pitilal, Andre Joseph Battersby, Asim Luqman, Charles Wade and Leslie Doisely, the five Trinidadian men who remain in custody. "But talking about terrorism is too far-fetched."

Attorney Flavio Mayorga wonders what the 'crime' actually is here. "For there to be terrorism an attack should be planned or carried out," he says.  "Article 4 of the Organic Law against Organized Crime and the Financing of Terrorism refers to cases of hijacking, hostage taking, nuclear weapons or destruction of public facilities, and none of that happened or was proven," he adds.

What became clear is that the five Trinidadian men entered the country on different flights between January and March last year, along with family and friends. They bought training clothing in a shop located in Chacaito, stayed in a hotel in Sabana Grande and got around town without arousing strong suspicion.

They had no problems until the day they were arrested together with family and friends. They claimed that, in the absence of a Saudi Arabian embassy in their country, they had traveled from Port of Spain to visit the Saudi Arabian embassy seated in Caracas to procure visas for Umrah, a pilgrimage to Mecca performed by Muslims that can be undertaken at any time of the year.

This, which is recorded in police transcripts, is in line with what their relatives told the Trinidadian press, which reported that the men were arrested by Venezuela's intelligence service together with several women and children on March 19 at Plaza Hotel in Caracas.

A journey throughout Caracas

The women and children were freed 10 days later and sent back to Trinidad. Two months later, three Imams among the group were released from prison after being cleared of terrorism offences, among them Imam Hamza Mohammed, who denounced discrimination while detained at Sebin's jail in Caracas.

"They found clothes that looked like military clothing in some of the rooms but we see prisoners in the jail we are in wearing similar type of clothing and it is no big deal," claimed Mohammed when he spoke exclusively to Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) Express and TV6, via telephone on April 1 last year.

Five out of the original 22 group members - including women and children - arrested by the Sebin remain in custody. The 54th National Public Prosecution Office for Money Laundering and Economic and Financial Crimes has filed criminal charges against them, along with three Venezuelan nationals suspected of collaborating with the alleged terrorists. The story told by the lawyers seems less far-fetched. The Trinidadians entered a store located on Avenida El Bosque in Chacaito to buy the army type uniforms listed in police transcripts, and took the opportunity to ask if they knew where they could do some shooting practice.

The owner of the store, SEBIN agent Rafael Durán, referred them to Commissioner of the National Police José Socorro, and that was how they got to the Caricuao shooting range. They were chauffeured there by Haitian-born Jules Joseph, now a naturalized Venezuelan, who had been hired as a driver because he knew English. "End of story. No more", say the lawyers.

"The approach adopted for the case is fundamentally wrong, because it happened on March 2014, at a difficult time for the country," says Germán Ponte, a legal representative of the Trinidadians. "They are foreigners. Muslims. Some were wearing turbans, and on seeing them in a shooting range they were stigmatized and ended up being indicted on terrorism charges, together with other Venezuelans whom the authorities have indicted on charges of conspiracy and treason.

The Syrian connection

In Trinidad and Tobago, however, some say that there is more to this case than meets the eye. Citing a Sebin document, the TV6 Network and the Trinidad Express daily newspaper talk of "war games," and of connections that reach out to Syrian groups fighting in the Syrian civil war as part of the Anti-Assad movement. "A top secret document prepared by Sebin and sent to the Trinidad and Tobago government states that ‘Pitilal and associates have caused several persons to further express and speak about rumors about pre-jihad training.'"

A series of articles by journalist Mark Bassant reported that foreign fighters might be among the holders of the 66 passports that were confiscated by Sebin. "The top secret document prepared by Sebin and sent to the Trinidad and Tobago government expresses ‘concern that Pitilal's associates, some of whom were not arrested, may be in Syria now.'"

Sources within the Muslim community in Trinidad, who met and spoke with Bassant on the condition of anonymity, said that some Trinidadians are involved in the Syrian conflict. One said, "What they do is buy plane tickets showing travel from Venezuela to China in transit through Turkey. When the plane stops there they get off and cross the border into Syria, but many would be thinking they have gone on to China as the ticket states." To which the defendants respond that they are seeing ghosts where there are none.

Dominic Pitilal, the Trinidadian national mentioned in the SEBIN report, proclaimed his innocence to CCN, the network that leaked the top secret document. "They are saying that we are Jihadists and extremists, I demand they should present evidence to prove that."

Pitilal believes the case is inflected by religious prejudice. In the same vein, former Senator and former Chairman of the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation Nafeesa Mohammed, who is assisting the families of the five members of the Trinidadian Muslim community detained in Venezuela, refutes the allegations linking them to the seeds of "homegrown jihad," or to a global movement of Muslim extremists heading to Syria as jihadists.

"I cannot help but believe that there is a cabal operating that seems to be determined to link these detainees to nefarious activities elsewhere. I have been instructed that these nationals went to Caracas to obtain visas to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah," she said.

Meanwhile, the governments of both countries have opted for a low profile. The Caracas authorities decline to discuss the issue, and those in Puerto Spain have similarly chosen to keep the matter out of the media.  "We will offer as much consular assistance as possible, but cannot interfere with the court and the criminal charges," said Trinidad's ambassador to Venezuela David Edghill.

Translated by Sancho Araujo


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