“A clear case of Islamophobia.” This was the response from Iqbal Jassat of the lobby group Media Review Network (MRN) in response to the arrest and detention of Muslim aid workers Mufti Hussain Bhayat and Haroon Saley. The two were arrested for suspected involvement in terrorism by Uganda’s Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JAT) early on Monday morning, 18 August at Entebbe International Airport in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. They were then detained for eleven days at a notorious secret detention centre in the up market suburb of Kololo.
Bhayat, 57, chairperson of the Johannesburg-based Islamic charity, Crescent of Hope, and executive member, Saley, 56, had arrived in Uganda to investigate requests for humanitarian assistance. The two had already been cleared to enter the country when they were questioned by immigration officials.
Initial reports suggested that Saley and Bhayat’s Ugandan host, Mufti Badru, was under investigation, and that the pair was simply ‘guilty by association’. Badru and his driver were also arrested and detained at the Kololo security facility. However, Bhayat and Saley strongly believe that their arrest was a clear case of religious profiling. “We were arrested because of our appearance as Muslims,” maintain both men, who, at the time of the arrest, were wearing Islamic robes, a Muslim prayer cap and sporting beards.
Although not tortured, Bhayat says that they were not treated humanely, and recalls how he was put into a tiny room measuring only 1,5 X 2m for two days and two nights.
“The room had no windows at all, and was completely dark. I was not given food or water, and had no mattress or blanket even though it was so cold,” recounted Bhayat. As his watch had been confiscated, and there were no windows, Bhayat, at the time, had no idea how long he had spent in solitary confinement.
Bhayat’s description is in stark contrast to the rosy picture painted by Ugandan Army spokesperson, Major Paddy Ankunda, who told Channel Islam International (CII) that the families of the men need not worry and invited them to come to Uganda to see for themselves. “They need to come down. Their people are being treated well,” he said in an interview on CII.
Ankunda’s statement was part of a campaign of misinformation waged by the Ugandan security apparatus, its military intelligence branch, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence and JAT, regarding the conditions of the arrest and detention of Bhayat and Saley. Ugandan security organizations sought to deliberately deceive the families of the men, the South African embassy and government, and the South African public by feeding the South African and Ugandan media incorrect information.
For instance, Saley and Bhayat had already been allowed to enter Uganda legally at the Immigrations Section at Entebbe International Airport. They were questioned at length by airport security initially and were only moved from the airport to a detention facility nine hours after arrival at the airport. Media reports, however, suggested that the pair were arrested upon arrival, and immediately detained at the Kololo facility by members of JAT.
Ugandan authorities told Saley and Bhayat that they were being taken to the South African embassy to resolve the situation. They were then driven to an unauthorized detention facility in Kololo. The men had been detained under false pretences.
Bhayat and Saley were not held at a “safe-house”, as reported in the media, but at a security facility in the Kololo neighborhood of Kampala, which the JAT uses for interrogating and torturing detainees. This is a clandestine facility, housing many other detainees, which is the site of numerous human rights abuses.
Amongst other things, the men were denied telephone access, not given food, sufficient running water or blankets. They were also not allowed a change of clothing until seven days later.
At no point during their eleven day ordeal were Bhayat and Saley ever informed of the reason of their arrest and detention. No charges were ever brought against the men, and the reason for their subsequent deportation still remains unclear.
The arrest and detention of Bhayat and Saley was also illegal since their captors and interrogators were in civilian clothes with no identifying insignia. Under Ugandan law, only the police are authorized to arrest suspects, and the only authorized places of detention for civilians are police and prison facilities. The facility at Kololo is an unauthorized, unlisted site. The arrest was also unconstitutional under Ugandan law since the pair was initially denied communication with their families, and access to legal counsel and South African consular services.
Iqbal Jassat has also cautioned against the use of Saley and Bhayat as an example of South African Muslim involvement in terrorism by academics, analysts or journalists seeking to exaggerate the terror threat posed by the South African Muslim community. “This would be a violation of their integrity and an attack on their character,” said Jassat. Jassat further added that it must be borne in mind that no charges were brought against Saley and Bhayat in Uganda or South Africa.
Following pressure from the Muslim Judicial Council and MRN, the South African High Commission intervened, and Bhayat and Saley were deported, and arrived back in South Africa on 29 August. The pair has been declared persona non grata in Uganda and cannot enter the country again.
According to Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa, “there were no grounds for their deportation”. He also stated that the pair would be “free to go” when they arrived in South Africa, and no charges would be brought against them in South Africa.
Although the Ugandan authorities’ deliberate misrepresentation of the situation in Uganda led to various media misrepresentations, it is appalling that media in Uganda and South Africa have not attempted to correct their inaccurate accounts, despite Bhayat and Saley’s legal counsel, Yousha Tayob, making available a detailed account of the men’s arrest and detention. At the time of writing, only one South African mainstream publication had bothered covering the story since Bhayat and Saley’s release, utilizing Tayob’s information and reporting on what really happened in Uganda without relying on information from the Ugandan authorities. However, all major news outlets covered the story when the men were still being held in Uganda.
Arbitrary arrests, such as Bhayat and Saley’s, are becoming more common since Uganda introduced repressive anti-terrorism legislation in 2002 following pressure from America to intensify counter-terrorism efforts in east Africa. The following year Uganda received a significant share of George W. Bush’s 15 billion dollars worth of aid that he brought with him during a tour of Africa. Out of the 53 countries that make up the African Union, Bush chose to visit only five, Uganda being one of them.
Like South Africa’s Anti-Terror Bill, Ugandan anti-terror legislation has a broad definition of terrorism. It also carries a mandatory death sentence for those found to be ‘terrorists’, and threatens basic civil liberties that are guaranteed under Uganda’s constitution such as freedom of expression, association and the media. The government can also intercept the private communication of individuals. Detention without trial is widespread, and human-rights abuses in prisons have been widely documented by human rights groups.
Although MRN Chairperson Iqbal Jassat expressed relief at the return of the two men, he was troubled at how long it had taken the Department of Foreign Affairs to obtain information about Bhayat and Saley, despite South Africa having a High Commission in Kampala. Jassat singled out the nonchalant attitude adopted by the South African High Commissioner, Henry Chiliza, who ignored requests to visit the men, and instead dispatched a junior officer. “Diplomatic access was only provided by the Ugandan authorities after a week,” said Jassat. “Unfortunately, this was perceived by the community as a lack of interest from the Department of Foreign Affairs. The conduct of the High Commission raises serious questions about the commitment of the South African diplomatic corps in Uganda to protect the interests of South Africans in that country,” stated Jassat.
As a desperate measure, the families obtained the services of legal counsel in Kampala to assist them. Jassat also wrote to ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, to intervene in the matter.
Dr. Firoz Osman, MRN Secretary-General said that the lack of charges proves that
Bhayat and Saley were the subjects of Islamophobic profiling in an international anti-terror crackdown. Osman was extremely concerned at the delayed response from the leaders of prominent Islamic organizations in the country. He also added that it was imperative that Muslim community leaders workshop with the South African government to prevent a future re-occurrence of this saga. “It is time for the Muslim leadership of this country to develop a concrete response together with Government, as it is almost certain that Muslims will be targeted again,” warned Osman.
Advocate Zehir Omar agrees. Omar had previously defended Muslims accused of being involved in terrorism, and told Cape Islamic radio station Voice of the Cape, that there had been an increase in the number of cases where innocent South Africans were being “dragged into the wild goose-chase that the ‘war on terror’ had become”.
Some of these incidents include the case of Farhad Dockrat, principal of the Darus Salaam Islamic College in Pretoria. He and his son, Muaz, were detained in Gambia in 2005 for suspected terrorist activity after visiting Islamic learning institutions there and in Senegal. Abdul Hamid Moosa spent almost six months in detention at a Guantanamo-style military camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, after being arrested in December 2006. Moosa was never charged, and was deported from Ethiopia.
“All Muslims are considered terrorists until proven innocent,” said Haroon Saley wryly. His comment rings true when one considers the numerous wrongful arrests and harassment of South African Muslims abroad. We can expect more Islamophobic incidents such as these unless the issue is taken seriously by the government and Muslim leaders of this country.