TIMESONLINE… The head of the Islam Channel, Britain’s most popular Muslim television station, has been arrested in South Africa and faces deportation to Tunisia over terrorism allegations.
The Times disclosed more than a year ago that Mohamed Ali Harrath, a Scotland Yard adviser against Islamic extremism, was wanted by Interpol because of his alleged activities in his homeland. His arrest on Sunday after a flight from London is being blamed by supporters on a security clampdown by the South African authorities in the run-up to this summer’s World Cup.
Harrath, 46, is the force behind the Islam Channel, which is watched by 59 per cent of British Muslims and beamed by satellite to 132 countries. He has been fêted by politicians, with the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, the minister Shahid Malik and the Tory frontbencher Dominic Grieve attending his annual festival. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, gave him a platform to address thousands in Trafalgar Square in September at the official taxpayer-funded event to mark the end of Ramadan. Harrath, who has a heart condition, collapsed during his arrest and is being treated at Eugene Marais hospital in Pretoria, where he is under police guard. The broadcaster has been convicted in absentia of numerous criminal and terrorism-related offences by Tunisian courts and sentenced to 56 years in prison.
The Islam Channel last night accused Tunisia of using Interpol to harass and intimidate Harrath.
Before fleeing his homeland, he co-founded the Tunisian Islamic Front, which Tunis accused of seeking to establish a Muslim state by armed revolutionary violence. Harrath insists that the organisation was a non-violent political party set up to oppose what he regarded as Tunisia’s one-party rule.
At Tunisia’s request, he has been on an Interpol Red Notice, its highest form of alert, since 1992 but was allowed into Britain in 1995 and accepted as a refugee.
He flew into Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg on Sunday for what the Islam Channel described as a business trip. He was arrested when his documents were scanned. Harrath will either be returned to Britain or sent to Tunisia, which has an extradition treaty with Pretoria. An emergency High Court application on behalf of the Islam Channel prevented him being returned straight to Tunisia. A full court hearing will be held tomorrow. Tunisia will have to give assurances over his treatment before he is returned.
South Africa takes requests from fellow African states seriously and has detained Sudanese and Rwandan officials wanted for alleged human rights violations. Security at South African airports is extremely tight before the World Cup amid persistent fears of terrorist attacks.
Iqbal Jassat, chairman for the Media Review Network, an Islamic rights organisation which has been advising the TV channel, said: “We have concerns that the authorities in South Africa are on a heightened state of alert because of the hype around possible terror attacks during the World Cup. We fear that could cause the victimisation of respectable people.”
The British High Commission confirmed Harrath’s arrest and said it was watching the situation closely.
The Quilliam Foundation, a British anti-extremist think-tank, has accused the Islam Channel of allowing speakers to promote intolerant and bigoted intepretations of their faith.