Cape Town - State Security agents are working to repatriate five South Africans stuck in Turkey after allegedly deserting from the terror group Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
State Security officials said intelligence agencies were verifying details about these people, as well as what they had been doing while they were in IS-controlled territory.
Eleven other South Africans returned to Gauteng on Friday after allegedly also deserting from IS.
This group travelled from Istanbul in Turkey to OR Tambo International Airport in Joburg.
State Security Agency spokesman Brian Dube said on Saturday the group included men, women and children who’d apparently found living conditions in Syria unbearable.
Yousha Tayob, a lawyer representing them, said on Saturday that his clients said they were not part of the IS but had been working as aid workers in war-torn Syria.
Tayob listed the 16 South Africans who had left the IS-controlled territory as Muhammad Shakeel Ahmed, Ismail Ahmed, Zohra Ahmed, Sa’ad Ahmed, Nadya Bibi, Amina Begum Stacey, Raushan Neveling, Nooreen Ahmed, Muneef Ameer, Fatima Pandor, Zaakiraah Ameer, Zakkiyah Ameer, Muhammad Ameer, Mohamed Ameen Suliman, Zaheer Bhyat and Shaakira Cassim.
Tayob accused officials of having illegally interrogated his clients.
“We had written letters to the authorities on Wednesday and Thursday advising them of our clients’ wish to remain silent. This was completely ignored,” said Tayob.
Tayob had asked that officials from State Security, national intelligence, the police, the Hawks and the Home Affairs Department not interrogate his clients without their legal team being present.
His clients had the right to legal representation if “any of them be questioned and/or detained or if there is any need to execute any warrant upon any of them”.
Tayob said this request had been ignored, while Dube said State Security had followed the law.
“South Africans are allowed freedom of movement. With regards to a region like Turkey or Syria, people travel for different reasons,” said Dube. “Some travel for business, tourism, religion and so forth. When people travel for these reasons, it becomes part of our normal work to screen them when they return and this is what we will be doing with these people.”
Tayob said the families were “happy to be home”.
“It was emotional. It has been a long struggle to get them back. They needed to be with their families.
“They decided to appoint a lawyer because of the impression created in the media that they had joined IS.
“They don’t want to talk to the media at the moment. We don’t know yet what they were doing in Syria but they said they were aid workers.”
When the 11 returned home at 11.30am on Friday they did not have passports with them, according to State Security officials.
This was because they had to surrender their original travel documents when reaching Syria and joining the IS, the officials claimed.
It is believed the group fled Syria and headed to neighbouring Turkey where they made contact with South African officials, who for weeks undertook an intensive investigation to verify their nationalities.
Karen Jayes, spokeswoman for Cage, said the organisation was concerned that the returnees had been interrogated at the airport without their lawyers. Cage is an organisation that “campaigns for due process and the rule of law as a means for ending the war on terror”.
“We welcome that they were not arrested, but we are very concerned that the individuals were questioned without lawyers,” said Jayes.
“The right to legal representation is a fundamental right, and the action of police at the airport was a violation of due process.
“Granting legal advice is also essential if we are to gain an accurate picture of the motivations behind their decisions to return to South Africa.”
However, Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said South African authorities were adopting a soft approach.
“Like we have seen in other countries, if one is suspected to have been involved in such activities with any terrorist links, they would be detained for serious questioning,” said Ewi.
“In SA, we have the Protection of Counter-Terrorism Act as well as the Mercenary Act. These two acts make it clear that the support, participation or training for any terrorist organisation is prohibited.
“It also prohibits anyone from being involved in military activities abroad.
“So, if these people are found to have been contravening these acts, they would have to face the full might of the law.”
Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Joburg, said the government was handling the situation responsibly. “The government is acting in a manner which is in the best interests of us all.
“Politically, we need to act in a manner that protects us on a national security level. We also don’t want to alarm people.
“Of course, each of those returned will be thoroughly screened by authorities.”
Jeenah said there was a sense that the majority of those who went to join the IS from South Africa did not aim to fight alongside its combatants.
He said their intention was to settle in the self-proclaimed Islamic nation.
The IS has captured large parts of Iraq and Syria. It also has operations in Libya and Egypt.
Weekend Argus/Sunday Tribune