Saudi Red Tape Delays Foreign Christians' Release

Monday, August 6, 2001

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, January 21 (Compass) -- Six of 14 foreign Christians slated for deportation from Saudi Arabia have been released for return to their home countries during the past 10 days. But another eight prisoners and their families remain entangled in a process that could take weeks to resolve.

From Eritrea, India, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nigeria, the foreign nationals were jailed in a rash of arrests that began last July and lasted into September. Although all had legal residence and work permits in Saudi Arabia, local authorities have refused to give any reason for their detention.

Kebrom Haile from Ethiopia was believed to be the first of the group to be deported when he was flown to Addis Ababa on January 12. Haile's wife, who recently gave birth to their first child, reportedly has not yet been able to join her husband.

Another five Christians left the deportation center last Friday, January 18, and were successfully processed through the airport immigration services to board flights back to their home countries: Afobunor Okey Buliamin to Nigeria, Iskander Menghis to Eritrea, and Genet Haileab, Mesfin Berhanu and Suleiman Keder to Ethiopia.

Only Menghis was accompanied by his family -- a wife and five children.

However, Buliamin's wife and two small children are ticketed to fly out of Jeddah tonight on a Nigeria Airways flight to Lagos. According to a representative of the Nigerian Consulate, Mrs. Buliamin's official Saudi sponsor had over the past two weeks "refused to cooperate" in obtaining an exit visa for her, "most likely" to avoid paying for the family's return tickets.

With no other option, the Nigerian Consulate intervened for the family to be processed through the deportation center today and sent directly to the airport. "I am very much concerned about the children," a consulate representative told Compass. "They will not stay at the deportation center," he stressed, noting that it was notoriously dirty and crowded.

Buliamin's wife telephoned Compass this afternoon from her home in Jeddah, confirming that her luggage was already checked in to Nigeria Airways, and she had been processed to leave with her children on this evening's flight to Lagos. However, after she got to the airport, the flight was cancelled, again delaying their departure.

Meanwhile, Jeddah immigration officials turned back Indian national Prabhu Isaac for the second time last night when he was sent to the airport to board his flight to Madras. According to official computers, Isaac's wife Socila was still listed on his passport as living in Saudi Arabia, so he could not leave without her.

In fact, Mrs. Isaac had been granted an exit visa and returned to India on January 13. She herself only made it out on her third try, since immigration computers still listed on her passport their two children, who had returned to India more than six months ago.

"There were some errors in the computer," a representative of the Indian Consulate said today. "But now it has been confirmed that his wife left earlier. So his ticket has been sent to the airport, and he will leave on the next flight." Isaac's daughter Joanna confirmed by telephone from India that she expected her father to be on the Thursday night flight, arriving in Madras on Friday morning.

Another six Christians remain on hold at the Breman deportation center near the Jeddah airport, while their employers and consulates finalize exit formalities with Saudi authorities. All have vehicles or other property registered in their names that must be transferred to another owner before their release is approved.

The remaining Christians were identified by the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) as Filipino Dennis Moreno, Eritrean Yusuf Girmaye, and four Ethiopians -- Tinsaie Gizachew, Bahru Mengistu, Beferdu Fikri and Gebeyehu Tefera.

According to Moreno's wife Yolly, the cars still registered in her husband's name are not his only problem. In fact, the plane ticket purchased for Moreno by his employer has turned up missing. Although his employer said the ticket was given to authorities at the Trahyl deportation center in early January, officials at the Breman facility where the Christians were transferred on January 8 denied the Filipino ever had a ticket.

"Sometimes these people are very tricky," Mrs. Moreno commented. She said that she had been told that a guard at the first facility had sold the ticket to another deportee, who then used it to leave the country. "Please pray that we can find out where the ticket is and get all the car papers turned over soon."

After working in Saudi Arabia for 16 years, Moreno is due considerable work benefits under his contract agreements. Two weeks ago, he told Compass that the financial settlement could be a point of contention with his company, before the owner agreed to process his exit visa.

One other prisoner, Ethiopian Ismail Abubakr [previously identified only as "Worku"], was reportedly moved on January 8 to the Matta Jail near Mecca to facilitate his discharge through his employer living there.

Formal charges were never filed against the foreign Christians, who were refused all diplomatic access until their transfer to a deportation center in late December.

While under arrest, the men were interrogated about their involvement in Jeddah in private "house church" meetings, which are prohibited under the kingdom's strict version of Islamic law. After being held incommunicado a number of weeks, they were allowed limited family visits.

Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct, Worthy News.