Today, as the foreign media descended on Sana’a and the Movenpick hotel, home to Yemen’s election media canter, the US ambassador Gerald Feierstein spent the morning doing multiple interviews with the now rather large (by Yemen standards) international press pack.
In addition to repeating what he told other reporters about Iranian support of the northern Houthi rebels, a common theme it seems that propped up in interviews today, he also listed some of the recent successes of the ‘never better’ counter terrorism relationship with the Yemen government.
In my closing question I asked him about the case of Yemeni journalist Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye and pointed to the concerns expressed in a workshop with around a dozen local journalists I took part in yesterday (a representative of the US embassy was also present as an observer at the workshop).
This was Mr Feierstein’s response (after laughing):
“Haidar Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al-Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment. But this isn’t anything to do with journalism, it is to do with the fact that he was assisting AQAP and if they [Yemeni journalists] are not doing that they don’t have anything to worry about from us.”
One Yemeni journalist and al-Qaeda specialist renamed himself an ‘analyst of Islamic groups’ and refuses to do TV interviews especially with Al Jazeera after what happened to Shaye.
The Yemeni Journalist Syndicate say Shaye has abandoned his recent hunger strike, at the request of his family, after his health rapidly deteriorated, hampering his ability to walk and talk.
For more background on Shaye’s case click on the Shaye tag below.
Although the Bureau of Investigative Journalism may have put a few noses out of joint in Washington this week, Chris Woods and Co. can no doubt continue to sleep soundly in their beds without fear of repercussion from disgruntled counterterrorism officials. The same rules do not apply if you’re a local journalist disclosing similar facts about US attacks in southern Yemen.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism quite rightly threw up its arms in protest this week at the accusation by an anonymous ‘senior American counterterrorism official’ that they were ‘helping al-Qaeda’ by revealing the death toll of civilian casualties in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, whilst also pointing out that this was not the first time US officials had attacked their findings.
Although most would see the claim that the Bureau is aiding the terrorist network as merely a transparent tantrum by Washington, it’s rather easier for the same officials to make the ‘al-Qaeda sympathiser’ label stick on a Yemeni citizen.
Yemeni journalist Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye’s official charge sheet listed some not dissimilar accusations: working as a media advisor for al-Qaeda and holding meetings with senior leaders of AQAP [Shaye specialised as a terrorism and al-Qaeda expert, conducting an exclusive interview with Anwar al-Awlaki for Al-Jazeera in 2009.]
But when the first hearing of his trial took place in October 2010, the 34-year-old journalist was well aware of the alternative motive behind his incarceration. Refusing legal representation on the grounds that his trial was illegal, he shouted to the judge through the caged wall that separated him from the packed courtroom:
“When they hid murderers of children and women in Abyan, when I revealed the locations and camps of nomads and civilians in Abyan, Shabwa and Arhab, when they were going to be hit by cruise missiles, it was on that day they decided to arrest me.”
Shaye was the first journalist to claim the US was responsible for killing 55 people, including 21 children, along with 14 alleged al-Qaeda members, in an attack in the province of Abyan in December 2009.
The journalist’s assertions were later confirmed after the conclusion of his trial by Wikileaks cables released in December 2010. The leaked documents recorded a meeting between President Saleh and the then head of US central command, General David Petraeus, during which they discussed the aftermath of the December 2009 bombings. Saleh told Petraeus: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
The thinly veiled charges saw Shaye sentenced in January last year to five years behind bars. Days later Ali Abdullah Saleh, as one of several concessions offered to appease anti-government protesters, granted him a presidential pardon. But Shaye never walked free. Due to direct intervention by President Barack Obama, in a phone call to his Yemeni counterpart on February 2, Shaye remained in jail.
The reaction by the US this week to the Bureau’s findings served well to underline the reason behind Shaye’s continued incarceration and Washington’s interference in his case.
The Yemen Times has repeatedly covered Shaye’s plight, but otherwise his detention at the behest of the US president has gone largely unnoticed by the English speaking press. The Yemeni Journalist Syndicate has made several requests to visit Shaye in prison, but during more than a year and half in jail only his family have been granted access.
The International Federation of Journalists announced this week it had written a letter to Hilary Clinton “to demand that the administration lift its objection to the release of Shaye.” As a paid up card-carrying [ironically the very card that got me into court to see Shaye’s trial] member of the IFJ I think it’s an embarrassment that it’s taken the organisation a year to respond.
Perhaps some consolation for Shaye and his family is that his time in prison may well have saved his life. Given the events of last year and the increase in CIA drone strikes in southern Yemen since May 2011, if Shaye had been a free man and continued in his line of work it’s distinctly possible he would have become a victim of the very strikes he sought to expose; a “mistake” as Washington claimed the two teenagers killed in a Shabwa drone strike were in October last year, or a convenient coincidence.
Chris Woods and colleagues are fortunate they remain out of reach of anything more than stroppy comments from anonymous senior US officials. In Yemen the wrath of Washington leaves Shaye facing another four years in a Sana’a prison.
Walking home in the orange light of the narrow streets of Sana’a Old City, the sila (sunken road) circling the ancient tower houses was the same as it is every night – deserted - bar the occasional check point of tired looking soldiers wrapped up in trench coats with kafiyas bound around their heads.
I crept home to my bed, exhausted after two busy days of covering the sudden upsurge of violence in the capital. Unlike the previous two mornings my wake up call was not an early morning text message telling of gunfire, attacks or impending violence from activists at the university encampment, now the centre stage of the anti-government protests, but this time came from friend and fellow journalist Laura Kasinof.
Armed police had raided the house I’d left just a few hours earlier, arresting four journalist friends. During the next few frantic calls to contacts with friends in high places their location remained a mystery. The political security and police denied they had them and still hours later the British embassy had no idea where they were being held. Then reports came through that they were at the Immigration Authority, but would be released and given a few days to sort out their paper work. Moments later these hopes were dashed when they were spotted at the airport.
Various excuses have been given for why they were expelled, from illegal entry, to not attending classes at the Arabic language schools who sponsor visas for students. But the reason given during their detention was that it was matter of “national security”. One of the deportees, Oliver Holmes, was pulled aside by an official to be told that coverage of the recent violence was behind his removal. Joshua Maricich was informed he’d over stayed his visa, which still has two weeks to run and his application for renewal had already been made.
In the complex and opaque Yemeni visa system, with constantly changing goal posts, the majority of resident Western freelancers are on student visas, sponsored by local Arabic schools (command of the language is an essential tool here where English speakers are few and far between) with the full knowledge of the Ministry of Information and other government officials that they are working as foreign correspondents. Some have lived here for years on that basis. Yesterday the long-standing mutual understanding between foreign freelancers and authorities disintegrated. The number of permanently based journalists reporting for the UK and US media was halved overnight.
Today, through the state run news agency Saba, the Ministry of Information denied they were journalists and said they were living in hiding. Joshua Maricich has lived for years, and Oliver for months, in the house they were taken from and they were all recently invited to (bar Joshua), and attended, a presidential press conference.
Since daily anti-government protests began more than a month ago attacks on and harassment of journalists and photographers have become commonplace. The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate building has been stormed and local news outlets have also been inhibited.
Yesterday’s deportees were not even the first Westerns to be kicked out of the country amid the changing atmosphere in Yemen. But as far as world coverage of events in Yemen are concerned it’s a significant blow.
With just a handful of us left we’re a nervous bunch. For now, all we can do is sit, wait and keep working, while trying not to jump out of our skins every time someone knocks on the door. Getting into the protest area is also an issue as security cordons have to be passed and all of us are familiar western faces amongst many of the senior officers manning the entrances into the spreading tented village, home to thousands of anti-government demonstrators in the west of the capital.
The government stopped issuing visas to journalists weeks ago, due to the “overwhelming number of visas demanded”. If we’re all forced to leave it begs the questions of: What happens next? Does that leave security forces with an open invitation to do what they like, without international eyes watching? Is this the build up to an even greater military crackdown? Questions we don’t know the answer to but are increasingly pressing.
The deported journalists were: Oliver Holmes (Wall Street Journal, Time) Portia Walker (Daily Telegraph, Washington Post) Haley Sweetland Edwards who had returned to Yemen for a few weeks, (Los Angeles Times, Atlantic) and Joshua Maricich, a climbing enthusiast, photographer and researcher who had recently written a government supported book on Yemen.
NOTE (in case it becomes relevant at a later date): I’m in Yemen on a journalist-sponsored visa via my base at the Yemen Times where I work as an editor along with two other western journalists.
07 Feb 2011
See original article at Index on Censorship
Journalist Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye should have been released from prison as part of concessions to protesters in Yemen. But a phonecall from the US president has kept him behind bars. Iona Craig reports
In the days before mass anti-government demonstrations took place across the country last week, President Ali Abdullah Saleh granted a pardon to Yemeni journalist Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye. But thanks to Barack Obama, it appears he will now not be released.
Shaye was sentenced last month to five years in prison for being the “media man” for Al-Qaeda. The 34 year-old journalist was found guilty of “participating in an armed gang, having links with Al-Qaeda and for taking photographs of Yemen security bases and foreign embassies to be targeted by the terrorist organisation.”
In the wake of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, President Saleh made a string of concessions and welfare reforms to quell mounting opposition and calls for him to resign. Shaye’s presidential pardon, announced last Tuesday, was in keeping with recent compromises. But in a phone call with his US counterpart on 2 February, in which Obama congratulated Saleh for his recent political reforms, the US president also expressed his “concern” over the intended release of Shaye.
Taken from his house in the middle of the night in August last year and held for 34 days without access to a lawyer or his family, Shaye’s trial began last October. The journalist made his name after interviewing radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. Shaye was also the first journalist to claim the US was behind bombings in the southern province of Abyan in December 2009, which killed 55 people including 21 children as well as 14 alleged Al-Qaeda members. Shaye’s claims were confirmed in a leaked diplomatic cable released on 3 December. The leaked document recorded a meeting between President Saleh and the then head of US central command, General David Petraeus, during which they discussed the aftermath of the December bombings. Saleh told Petraeus “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Shaye’s lawyers, who did not represent him in court on the grounds that the journalist refused to recognise the legitimacy of his trial, say the charges against him were fabricated as a result of his reporting on Al-Qaeda and his accusations against the Yemeni and US governments.
Khaled Al-Anesi, a lawyer from human rights organisation HOOD, told the Yemen Times on Sunday that there were suspicions that the US wanted him jailed.
“This American interference insures that Yemen’s dealing with terrorism is run by the US,” said Al-Anesi. “If they wanted to release him they would have released him immediately straight after the pardon was announced. This is a sign that they don’t want to set him free.”
Shaye’s continued detention at the request of Barack Obama would not be the first time Yemeni prisoners have been detained at the behest of the US. Recently leaked diplomatic cables revealed that 28 Yemenis were held, ‘based on USG [US government] objections” despite Saleh agreeing to release them in a Ramadan amnesty in 2004.
See video of Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye responding to charges on the first day of his trial in October last year.
24 Jan 2011
See original article at Index on Censorship
Despite the eruption of Tunisia-inspired protests in Sana’a and other cities in Yemen calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, regime change seems unlikely. Iona Craig reports.
As the ripple effects of the Tunisia uprising continue one voice has shouted louder than any other in the region’s poorest state. Protest leader Tawakkol Karman was released this morning by Yemeni authorities after she was arrested for calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
Reports have said she will remain on hunger strike until 18 of her supporters, arrested on Sunday, are also released.
I met Karman, director of Women Journalists Without Chains and member of opposition party Islah, during the trial of recently sentenced journalist Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye. She is one of a growing number of educated young Yemenis willing to stand up to the authorities, in a country where those who do so risk lengthy imprisonment, without contact from family or any legal representation and face possible torture.
Karman led two Tunisian inspired protests in the capital Sana’a last week calling on President Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for more than 32 years, to “Leave before you are forced to leave”. Further protests have taken place in Yemen’s southern city of Aden and the highland city of Taizz.
But despite the demonstrations, which led to one protester being shot dead in Aden on Sunday, it seems unlikely, although not impossible, that any of these activities will bring down the 64 year-old president and his dominant General People’s Congress Party (GCP). Only a joining of Yemenis with grievances against the government- and there are many of them: southern separatists, northern rebels; not to mention Yemenis in general who have been let down by a weak and corrupt government; could cause a realistic threat.
Unlike Tunisia the US and its allies have a considerable interest in the political stability of the fragile gulf state. There is fear over the consequences of any government collapse in Yemen, where the US regards the threat of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to be a growing one. The forced removal of Saleh would have the potential to throw the country into turmoil led by tribal power struggles, increased pressure from southern separatists and a Houthi uprising in the north.
The southern provinces of Yemen, formerly the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen until unification in 1990, not only hold the country’s dwindling oil fields, but the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwah are also claimed as the hosts of a significant number of AQAP members.
It is this fear and the way it would play into the hands of AQAP that lies behind US and British policy, which is firmly against a Sudan-style southern succession and any sudden change in national leadership. Whilst the US and Britain support parliamentary elections, due to take place in April, their support for democracy is in keeping with the Saleh vision of a single Yemen state. Earlier this month Washington raised concerns in a statement about proposals put forward by the government to change Yemen’s constitution. One of the changes would allow Saleh to remain in power for life.
Saleh himself continued this week with his well-known method of juggling. In response to the protests the president announced on Sunday that government and armed forces wages would be raised and there have been unconfirmed reports that income tax will be cut by 50 percent. In his speech Saleh asked for “forgiveness” and called for “dialogue” with the opposition. All while his security services where arresting and imprisoning activists.
Although Karman and all those who have marched through the streets of Sana’a, Taizz and Aden for the last two weeks have shown brave defiance, it seems improbable that any significant change will come about as a result. Saleh may yet agree to stand down in 2013, but Yemen is not a place where you can hold your breath waiting for political promises to be fulfilled. And the invisible hand of the US will no doubt be cupping its fingers around the ear of the long-standing president to have a quiet word.