Six of the nine British nationals detained in China on suspicion of having links to a terror group have been expelled from the country, according to diplomats in Beijing. The Britons were part of a 20-strong group of tourists, including South African and Indian citizens, taken into custody by police in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, last Friday morning during a 47-day visit to China.
Chinese authorities have not yet offered an official explanation for the detentions. However, Gift of the Givers, the South African faith-based charity to which the tourists belonged, said police had accused its members of links to a terror group and of watching banned videos in their hotel room. The group’s founder, Imtiaz Sooliman, told a South African website the tourists had probably been watching videos of Islamic prayers during Ramadan, and he denied any terror links.
The Pietermaritzburg aid group describes itself as “the largest disaster response NGO of African origin on the African continent”. Its website says it was founded in 1992 and is inspired by Muhammed Saffer Effendi al-Jerrahi, a master of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. In a statement on its official Facebook page, the group claimed the tourists’ mobile phones had been confiscated by police and that they had spent 48 hours without access to communications or lawyers.
Security officials initially gave no reason for the detentions but eventually “suggested that some members were linked to a terror group, to a banned organisation, to watching propaganda videos in their hotel room”. It added: “These individuals have no terror links [and] no criminal record in their country.” By Tuesday, authorities had agreed to released 11 of the 20 tourists, whose trip was organised by a Chinese firm, China Odyssey Tours, the charity said. The remaining nine – five South Africans, three Britons and one Indian national – were still being held.
Those detained include Hoosain Ismail Jacobs, a 74-year-old former anti-apartheid activist who had lived in exile in Britain for more than 25 years, and Dr Feroz Suliman, a surgeon at the Waterfall hospital in the South African city of Midrand. The precise motive for the detentions remained a mystery on Wednesday. A police propaganda officer in Ordos said he had no details. “No one from our bureau told me about the case,” said the official, who gave his surname as Lu. “I saw the news and I am currently trying to get more information.”
Lu said a case involving foreign nationals would normally be handled by the public security ministry rather than by local police. In a statement in response to questions from the Guardian, China’s foreign affairs ministry said: “Twenty foreigners were involved in activities violating the law and Ordos local police on 11 July has criminally detained nine of them and deported the other 11 people in accordance of the criminal law, the criminal procedural law and the exit-entry administration law.”
The statement added: “At the moment, the case is being handled in accordance of law. China will protect relevant people’s legal rights in accordance with the law and will continue providing the necessary assistance and convenience to relevant embassies for their consular duties.” The British embassy said it was unable to shed more light on the reasons for the detentions. “We are seeking further clarification on this from Chinese authorities.”
A representative of China Odyssey Tours, which is based in the city of Guilin, confirmed that the company had brought the 20 tourists to China. The representative refused to give further details of the group’s trip or say which parts of China they had visited during the first 30 days of the 47-day tour before arriving in Inner Mongolia. “The only way you can get information is from the government or from the embassies,” they said.
Asked whether the company was concerned about the plight of its tourists, the employee said: “I’m not able to answer this question.” As well as performing charity work in dozens of developing countries including Haiti, the Philippines, Iraq and Nepal, Gift of the Givers has been involved in negotiations for the release of hostages. Among those it has tried to release was Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher who was killed in Yemen last year alongside the British-born photojournalist Luke Somers. The two were being held by al-Qaida in Yemen and died during an attempted rescue operation by US special forces
Imtiaz Sooliman, the charity’s founder, suggested the detentions could be a result of some members’ Islamic faith. “This is the month of Ramadan, and the South Africans were likely watching videos of Islamic prayers as many of us do in the evenings,” he was quoted as saying by South Africa’s Independent Online website. The officially atheist Communist party has faced international condemnation for its hardline treatment of Muslim communities in the far western region of Xinjiang. Under-18s are banned from entering mosques and there are regular reports of local authorities banning Muslims from fasting during Ramadan.
A one-year “people’s war on terror” was launched in the region in May last year after a spate of deadly attacks that Beijing blamed on Islamic extremists. This week there were reports that Chinese police in the north-east had shot three suspected terrorists from Xinjiang, The Guardian reports.