Scramble to free detained tourists

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is currently in China on an official visit. Picture: Siyabulela Duda
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is currently in China on an official visit. Picture: Siyabulela Duda

Embassy officials are trying to secure the release of five South Africans detained without charge in Inner Mongolia.

One of the South Africans arrested in the northern Chinese region is 74-year-old Hoosain Ismail Jacobs, an Umkhonto we Sizwe veteran who served in the highly decorated Luthuli detachment and spent 27 years in exile.

Also detained are Salim Aziz Joosub, the brother of Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub, and husband and wife doctors Feroz Suliman and Shehnaaz Mohamed. Suliman is a surgeon at a private hospital in Midrand.

They were in a tour group of 10 South Africans, nine Britons and an Indian.

Their families approached the aid organisation Gift of the Givers in an effort to get help for their loved ones.

According to the aid organisation’s founder, Imtiaz Sooliman, the group was 30 days into a 47-day tour of China when all 20 tourists were detained at Erdos Airport on Friday morning.

Sooliman said no reason was given for the arrests, the detainees’ cellphones were confiscated and they were denied access to embassy officials.

Their fate was realised only when their tour operator made the trip to Erdos 48 hours later.

Nelson Kgwete, spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, said the South African embassy had been notified on Sunday.

“We can confirm that they were arrested, and we are providing consular assistance and are in contact with their families,” he said. “We are liaising with the Chinese authorities.”

Sooliman said: “The Chinese are now trying to find reasons for the detention, suggesting that some members were linked to a terror group, to a banned organisation, to watching propaganda videos in their hotel room.”

Sooliman said the Chinese had agreed to release 11 of the 20 tourists, but they would remain in detention until flights out of China could be arranged. The earliest flights were for July 17, he said.

The other nine members of the tour group were being held without charge in a detention centre and were being accused of watching propaganda videos.

They are the five South Africans, three Britons and the Indian.

Shameel Joosub issued a statement through Vodacom yesterday, saying: “My family and I are deeply concerned for the safety and well-being of my brother, aunt and uncle. Along with other South Africans, British and Indian citizens, they were detained on July 10 by the Chinese authorities at the airport in Erdos, Inner Mongolia, and held without charge. We are in close contact with the South African authorities who are working to secure their release.”

Joosub said the arrests were in no way linked to Vodacom.

Isabel Potgieter, spokesman for the SA British Commission, said that UK consular officials had met the detainees and were in contact with the Chinese government, working to get their nationals released.

Two of the group have dual British-South African citizenship.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is currently in China on an official visit. His spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa, would not be drawn on whether the deputy president would take up the matter with his Chinese hosts, referring the matter to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.

China has in recent years adopted a hard line against apparent Islamic jihadists.

On October 13 last year people in the Xinjiang region were sentenced to death for apparent terrorist attacks. Xinjiang is the traditional home of Muslim Uighurs, which the government has blamed for Islamist separatist attacks.

On Monday, 109 members of the Uighur minority were deported from Thailand. China claims they were heading to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State jihadist movement.

-The Times

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