Venezuela, the Mecca of nightmares

Five Trinitarian Muslims lived a nightmare in the coolest destination in the world. When they traveled to Caracas to process the visa required to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, they were detained by the political police on terrorism charges. They spent two years, six months and 25 days in the cells of Sebin (Bolivarian National Intelligence Service). Then, and to not acknowledge the error of imputing five innocent persons, the judge issued a penalty equal to the time they were locked up. The solution does not return the lost time to five foreigners who lived through the tragedy of dealing with the perverse and ineffective Judiciary created by chavismo.

24 December 2017

When listening to the story of the five Trinitarians who were in a Venezuelan prison for over two years it is inevitable to think that it is about a movie or a case of the British documentary-docudrama "Banged Up Abroad". There is a more distant reference, but that may be relevant to the case. In the late seventies, when Venezuela was the dreamed destination of Latin Americans victims of military dictatorships and the economic chaos of their countries, the Ministry of Tourism of the time imposed the slogan "Venezuela, a country to love". When, on November 25, 2016, the Trinitarians left to their country, after two years of uncertainty at the headquarters of the political police of Nicolás Maduro’s regime, they could not endorse the slogan. The government of Nicolás Maduro was responsible for letting them know otherwise, during their time in prison.

In early 2014, they arrived in the country to process the visa to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Dominic Pitilal, Andre Battersby, Charles Wade, Asim Luqman and Leslie Deslie were staying with their relatives at the Plaza Palace hotel in Sabana Grande, a business area of Caracas, in the height of the protests against Nicolás Maduro’s government in March 2014. Officials of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) and the Administrative Service of Identification, Migration, and Immigration (Saime) raided their rooms in response to some anonymous reports warning that a group of illegal aliens in the country; as described in the court record.

In the raid, electronic devices, a badge of the Municipal Police of Chacao, 66 passports, a green field jacket with an emblem of the Bolivarian National Patriotic Armed Forces, clothing and 5.11-brand implements usually used for strategies tactics, and cash (both foreign and local currency) were seized. The Trinitarians always assured that they took an approximate of 100 thousand dollars from them; however, the amount on the records was much lower.

Among the electronic devices obtained was a cell phone owned by Dominic Pitilal that contained a video and photographs where he and his companions could supposedly be observed in a shooting practice in the polygon of the National Police. This recording was used by the authorities to lock them in the headquarters of Sebin, in El Helicoide, and take the five foreigners to trial, together with three other Venezuelans, for the crime of terrorism.

From Terrorists to Intruders

Two years, six months and 25 days after the raid and arrest of the tourists, the Judge of the 12th Trial Court, María Eugenia Núñez, at 1 am on October 15, 2016, found the citizens from Trinidad and Tobago guilty of espionage based on circumstantial evidence and unlawful association and imposed a penalty that matched exactly with the time they had been imprisoned. They received their release card, but it was not until a month and a half later, at the end of November 2016, when Sebin officials released them and later on they were deported.

During the trial, the Trinitarians were not accused of terrorism and criminal association but of the offense provided for in article 137 of the Venezuelan criminal code: "Anyone who has unduly obtained the plans of the fortifications, ships or aircraft of war, establishments, roads or military works, or who for that purpose had clandestinely or with deception entered into places prohibited to public access by the military authority, shall be punished, with three to fifteen-month imprisonment ."

The defense attorneys affirm that the decision to change the crime was a maneuver by the prosecutor’s office to release them after the ruling and not admit that they were wrong in imputing five innocents. "There was a lot of international pressure, the Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago attended all the hearings. If they were accused of terrorism they would spend their lives in prison, "explains attorney Germán Ponte.

The judge in charge of the fate of the Muslims was the same who, on May 12, 2015, prohibited the departure from Venezuela of 22 directors of different media, as a result of the lawsuit filed by Diosdado Cabello, first vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and member of the current Constituent Assembly, for alleged aggravated and continued defamation against the newspapers El Nacional, Tal Cual, and the website La Patilla. He was also in charge of the case of Gilberto Sojo, alternate deputy of parliamentarian Dinorah Figuera for the state of Aragua before the National Assembly and leader of Voluntad Popular for the parish of San Agustín, who stayed at SEBIN headquarters for two years. Currently María Eugenia Núñez is a superior court judge.

Waking Up from the Nightmare

Four of the five Trinitarians were received on November 24, 2016, between tears and hugs, by their relatives at the International Airport of Piarco, the main terminal of that country. "Thanks for the support. It was very important to us, especially because we were alone there, feeling discouraged and abandoned. It was a terrible experience. Most of the time, we did not have any food, but what is food without freedom. However, we were not brutally mistreated in any way," said one of them, Asim Luqman, to the Daily Express upon arrival.

The defense denounced on several occasions to the Ombudsman's Office in Venezuela that the detainees were not receiving medical care. The Trinitarians have instructed their attorneys to appeal for not agreeing with the sentence. "There are contradictions in the sentence. A conviction cannot be a whim of the judge. The priority of them is that justice be done. That is why they will exhaust the legal instances in the country to file the respective international complaints," explains attorney Javier Mayorca.

The fifth of the group that did not reunite with his loved ones that day was Charles Wade. Upon arriving in Trinidad and Tobago from Venezuela, along with his other four companions, he was taken into custody by the police of that country. Wade was charged with committing fraud at the time of purchase of a vehicle in 2013 and had to spend a couple of days in prison until he was granted bail, as reported by the Daily Express media.

After this case came to light, the head of the Islamic front in Trinidad and Tobago, Umar Abdullah, asked his government to establish diplomatic relationships with Saudi Arabia to ensure that local Muslims do not have to travel to Venezuela to apply for a visa to attend the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is mandatory in their religion. A measure that, according to Abdullah, would avoid repeating the story that today condemns Venezuela.

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