China formally detained nine foreign tourists including South Africans, Britons and an Indian national, the Foreign Ministry and a South African charity said, for suspected ties to a “terror group” after authorities accused them of watching banned videos.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that 11 others would be deported and the nine were “criminally detained” – a term meaning suspects have likely been charged and could be prosecuted. All are suspected of violating the law, the ministry said, without specifying what they had done.
Law enforcement authorities in Inner Mongolia, where the group was detained, are in touch with diplomatic and consular officials from the countries, the ministry added.
Imtiaz Sooliman, head of the Gift of the Givers Foundation, a South African charity, quoted Chinese authorities as saying some of those arrested had been watching propaganda videos from a banned group while in their hotel room.
Family members of some of the detainees asked Gift of the Givers, which has conducted hostage negotiations, to speak to the press on their behalf.
Shameel Joosub, chief executive of South African telecoms firm Vodacom Group Ltd, said members of his family were among those detained. Sooliman said the group – five South Africans, three Britons and one Indian national – also included a veteran of the African National Congress’ military wing, which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela.
“There’s no way possible that they were part of any terrorist group,” Sooliman said.
A British Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “Consular staff have visited the group to provide assistance and we are liaising with Chinese authorities.”
The embassy of South Africa declined to comment. An Indian embassy spokesman said he had no information on the matter.
The group was on a 47-day historical tour of the country when they were detained at an airport in the Inner Mongolian city of Erdos. Their tour operator received no word from Chinese authorities and sought them out two days later, Sooliman said, when he had not heard from the group and realised something had gone “horribly wrong”.
The incident coincides with a visit to China by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Gift of the Givers said it called on Ramaphosa to raise the issue with Chinese leaders.
A representative travelling with Ramaphosa could not immediately be reached for comment.