Middle East: Don’t Go There!

Published by Trinidad Guardian here

“Clear my name…” That’s the appeal to the police and Government from Islamic studies scholar Tariq Mohammed who was detained in Saudi Arabia for 16 months since August 2015.

Despite being questioned about suspicion of terrorism, Mohammed—a student at the University of Medina—was not charged with anything and was released. He arrived home last December.

Detailing his time under interrogation in several Saudi jails, where he was in solitary confinement and made to withstand bright lights 24/7 for eight months straight, Mohammed has one messsage for T&T nationals: “Mine was a horrible experience. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go to that side of the world—even to study.”

Mohammed added yesterday, “You could fall victim to entrapment. T&T is a nice little island, let’s just stay neutral and enjoy it. I thought I’d never return home.”

Mohammed’s family delivered letters to the Commissioner of Police and National Security Ministry on Friday, bidding to have his name cleared so he could find a job, take care of his wife and two babies, and return to normal life.

Mohammed, 31, the son of 106.1FM announcer Shamoon Mohammed, is the nephew of attorney Nafeesa Mohammed.

He said, “I was wrongfully held in the Middle East. I need some sort of clearance to avoid being stigmatised and to let the country know I’m no terrorist. I never was and have no inclination to be.

“I’ve never done anything in my country or any other State and I’m no threat in either direction. I hope I get justice since some have said things about me.”

Mohammed’s nightmare began in 2015, his final year at the university where he had been pursuing Isalmic studies for seven years. He and his family had lived in Saudi Arabia, returning home annually.

After his last visit in May 2015, he was interviewed by Special Branch police but was not arrested or told not to travel.

He and his family left in August 2015 to return to Saudi Arabia. Their Turkey stopover was part of the route normally selected by the university.

On arrival in Saudi, they were summoned off the Turkish Airlines flight

He related: “People were telling us ‘sign here’ and ‘sign here’, which we did. But apparently, the signing facilitated my handing myself over to authorities. I was separated from my wife. But we remained calm. They took me to a place in Medina which I realised was a political prison.”

Mohammed did not know then that he would be seeing the inside of different prisons for the next 16 months.

Hunting ground for Isis

In the first of the many interrogations that ensued, authorities did not make it apparent they were interested in terrorism.

“They said they were doing investigations and I’d be ‘going home soon.’ Later, I was grilled for hours for six days.

“They asked me about Isis, seeking general opinion. They wanted to know about T&T people who went there (Isis). I told them the situation was known to T&T authorities and to look at the amount of coverage on T&T media.

“They asked me about situations including that July 2015 jailbreak (at the Port-of-Spain prison). I explained I had been in Jumu’ah (Friday prayers) at the Real Street mosque then.

“They seemed very alarmed and shocked by how a small place like T&T had such a high percentage of nationals going to fight with Isis. They didn’t know T&T’s Muslim history. I pointed out my travel records—for seven years I was studying in their area and I never went to any conflict zones.

“I made it clear I have no interest in such things. It was on our doorstep there—people crossed the border into Iraq or Yemen— but I didn’t. I asked why I was detained. It felt like because some T&T nationals went to Isis, I was being punished for them.”

He was shocked by what an interrogator told him:

“A Saudi study showed about 70 per cent of their population supported Isis. The interrogator said they had a ‘big eye’ on the university where I was and they ‘hunted’ it for Isis people. He said they got 1,500 riyals (Saudi currency) for every person they got.

“So it’s how they make money and an Islamic university like mine was the perfect target. Some university scholars had warned us about being targeted in this ‘hunting ground’ where students could get trapped.

“And Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Muslim world so you could meet people from many war-afflicted States. So my advice is: stay out of there even if you’re studying. You could easily fall into entrapment.”

Mohammed, who got to see and speak to his wife at times, would be taken to another detention centre in Qassim.

Inmates included scholars, political prisoners, and people who fought in Afghanistan.

“It seemed normal for people to be held for two years plus. You know you cannot keep a person in solitary for more than a month before it affects them mentally. But at one point, I was in solitary for two and half months.”

The worst moment

He was flown to another prison in Aseer where what he describes as psychological torture began.

“They’d keep us under extremely bright lights 24/7.

I stayed under those lights for eight months straight. Some guys had been under them for years.

“When they eventually dimmed the lights, I felt a physical change in my entire body.

“Your system isn’t made to handle glaring bright lights day and night. Solitary was very bad, but those lights were the worst. Thank God I make it through.”

There were no exercise times. With the oily food served, Mohammed said, “You could easily become obese.”

“There was a handful of Westerners—Americans and Canadian. Nobody knew T&T, but a lot knew Brazil. One guy asked if I was from Senegal.

“Fellas in rooms next to us had friends who were executed—their heads were chopped off—we knew when they took them out.

“One man who spoke to me in Arabic would tell me ‘they come for you….’ Sometimes there were guys who might have been in there for something small but because they got tortured, they make you admit to things. You couldn’t get a lawyer—everything was run by the Ministry of the Interior.”

His worst experience?

“…At 2 am one night, I heard a man bawling down the place. He’d just been tortured and they brought him back. It was chilling. The others read verses of the Q’uran to calm him down.”

Mohammed was then flown to Riyadh where conversations with his wife were stopped..

Intelligence officers questioned him.

“They were running tests (not disclosed) on me. By the second session, one of the guys told me, ‘That’s it, you’re not going to come back here. Hopefully you’ll be going home.’”

Mohammed was flown back to Qassim, then Medina and Jeddah.

Removed from “solitary”, he was put into a group room “…among Syrians and Yemenis. They used to dance in the room.

Then one day, authorities came and said I was ‘flying’ that day and they were ‘finishing my affairs’ now.

“That was the best moment of my life! A Sudanese guy hugged me and said it was great. They asked if I wanted anything. But other people had told me not to ask. One guy had asked for shoes and they made him stay five more months.”

The authorities took him for a medical check-up before he was sent home.

Seven non-uniformed men took him to the airport. He was not handcuffed.

“One asked if I’d try going to Syria. I said I was going T&T and not leaving.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘hell, I’m never coming back to Saudi Arabia either.’”

He returned home via Turkey, Bogota and Panama—to a two-hour interview with T&T Immigration.

Mohammed said he has not seen Government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation.

But he understands the difficulties the “western world” has in accepting that Prophet Muhammed had a military and political life as well as a spiritual one.

However, after his experience he is not encouraging anyone to ‘study anything in the Middle East”.

“T&T is a nice place, let’s stay out of fighting any war and live peacefully. The way things are going, you have to keep your distance. I see a lot of western countries becoming like Middle Eastern ones and people not being able to live normal lives.”

He acknowledged he may be under surveillance. “But I’m no terrorist—what I am, is happy to be home.”

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