Today, on Human Rights Day, I wanted to share a rough transcript of the speech I made at the AlKarama Award ceremony held in Geneva last Friday.
Yemeni journalist AbdulElah Haider Shyae was prevented from travelling to Switzerland to receive the award for defending human rights. I was honoured to be asked by AbdulElah to collect the award on his behalf.
(You can read more background on his case here and here)
I know AbdulElah very much wanted to be here with you this evening and to thank you all in person. But he is with us in spirit. Those of us who travelled here from Sana’a brought him with us in our hearts and in our minds.
I never thought I’d be in Yemen to witness the day of AbdulElah’s release. To actually meet the man I’d only ever seen behind a caged wall.
I first arrived in Yemen days before his “trial” began in October 2010 - and I put that word in “quotes” because as my first introduction to the Yemeni justice system it was a shocking experience.
When I witnessed what went on in the court room I remember thinking to myself: If I was in his shoes. If I was standing behind those bars. In that cage. I really hope that someone in the court room would tell the world what was happening to me. Yemeni journalists did their part but the Western media did not. Even as a freelancer, all the outlets I write for in the Western press. None of them were interested in hearing about his case. So I wrote about it for Index on Censorship – the freedom of expression organisation in the UK.
Much to my and others surprise and relief President Hadi decided to release him in July this year, despite protest from the American Government.
But I wish I could stand here and tell you that AbdulElah Haider Shyea is now a free man. That he has freedom of movement. That he is free from persecution. Free from threats against his liberty and against his life. But he is not.
Not only is he not allowed to leave the confines of Yemen’s capital but every day he is being watched, monitored and intimidated. Persecuted by his own government’s intelligence services, supported by their America colleagues, his family live in constant fear he will once again be kidnapped by the state, or worse still killed.
AbduelElah’s concerns about his constant watchers means he has refused to communicate by phone since his release and is constantly looking over his shoulder.
Politically-linked assassinations are rife in Yemen at the moment. Military and security personnel have been regular targets. But journalists have also become victims. A Yemeni journalist was gunned down in his home in the city of Aden in February. Less than a week later someone tried to kill me outside Yemen’s Ministry of Defence in Sana’a, while a journalist survived a car bomb attack in Sana’a just two weeks ago.
The current malevolent nature of Yemeni politics means these killings have become part of an ongoing covert conflict between political factions. But, thanks to the White House boasting in a 2011 readout of a phone call between President Obama and Yemen’s then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, we know of a greater power’s intervention in his case: Obama’s. We know that, as AbdulElah put it in a letter smuggled out of the Political Security Prison in Sana’a earlier this year: “The only person responsible for kidnapping and detaining me is Obama.”
I didn’t truly appreciate the extent of the surveillance against AbdulElah and the sense of paranoia it generates until a few weeks ago.
After AbdulElah visited my home, which by coincidence is just a few meters from the underground cell where he was first detained, beaten and tortured by Yemen’s National Security Bureau in 2010. After he’d been to my house that was when the questions started. Two days later other Yemeni friends who were coming to see me were stopped in the street. After giving them a physical description of AbdulElah they were asked: “Why is this man coming to the house. What is he doing here?” Now people who come to my home, the first thing they say as they come through the door after facing similar questions is “You know you’re being watched don’t you?”
The intimidation for AbdulElah is never ending and we should all worry about what this level of surveillance may lead to. Having had my own experience earlier this year I also worry that I may be contributing to the threat against him.
Despite this persecution AbdulElah is determined to keep working as a journalist. His pursuit of the truth is single minded, admiralty stubborn and, given his circumstances, incredibly brave.
Reporting the truth is profoundly important to AbdulElah. As part of that he feels an urgent need for the reformation of how journalists work - not just in Yemen but around the world - how they report, their deference to officialdom and governments who seek to manipulate the truth for their own ends.
The first question I asked him after his release in July was about whether he planned to continue his work. There was no doubt in his response: “I will never stop. Not until I die.”
I feel very proud and honoured to collect the AlKarama Award on his behalf and I know he very much wanted to be here to receive the award and to speak to you all in person. But due to the movement restrictions imposed on him by the Yemeni government, with the support of the Obama Administration he’s unable to do so.
I’d like to end with a few of AbdulElah’s own words:
I was jailed in solitary confinement on Obama’s orders because I told the truth. Not about the marriage of the under aged, but about the cluster bombs fired from American warships and fighter jets that slaughter the under aged.
So why is Obama scared of a journalist?
Because the journalist is a witness and only those who are caught in the act of committing a crime are scared of the witness that could expose them to the public.
I am very happy to belong to the journalism family, and proud of your support of me in my hardship . Not support to a person, but to a cause.
I do not have anything to hide or fear.