The authorities in Yemen are trying to silence me and they even appear to be prepared to lock me up to keep me quiet. I definitely don’t want to go to prison again just for doing my job as a journalist, but at the same time I’m not prepared to censor myself for an easy life. (Abdel Karim Al-Khaiwani, June 2008)
A prominent Yemeni journalist is this year’s worthy recipient of Amnesty International’s Special Award for Human Rights Journalism under Threat. Abdel Karim Al-Khaiwani, forty-two, was unable to attend the ceremony on 17 June 2008 and receive the award in person because just a week earlier he was sentenced to six years in prison for his coverage of armed clashes in the northern Yemeni province of Saada.
Al-Khaiwani, former editor of Yemen’s political weekly newspaper and online opposition publication Al-Shora, was one of fourteen Yemenis brought to trial in the case known as ‘The Second Cell of Sana’a’. The defendants are charged with supporting the militant Houthis opposition group, and at least one of them is believed to have been sentenced to death.
North and South Yemen were formally unified as the Republic of Yemen in 1990. However, civil unrest has plagued this Arab state, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, for a number of years and this has inevitably taken its toll. Yemen currently numbers 153rd of the 177 countries listed in the UN’s human-development index, which measures life expectancy, education and average income, amongst other things. Yemen hit British headlines in December 1998 when sixteen tourists were kidnapped, twelve of them British. Four of the tourists (three British, one Australian) were shot dead in what appeared to be a bungled rescue attempt by Yemeni security forces. Since the start of 2008, the country has been in the news again following a spate of terrorist attacks, both inside and outside the capital, Sana’a, against the US Embassy, expatriate accommodation and an oil company headquarters.
The tribal Islamists in the north have often clashed with the anti-tribal, non-sectarian socialists in the south. Since 2004, conflict in the far north has set tribesmen from the Zaidi Shia minority against the central government in Sana’a. There have been thousands of casualties and many civilians have been forced to flee their homes. The government has reportedly denied journalists and almost all independent observers access to the area and maintained a high degree of censorship of reports about the situation, which threatens to become a humanitarian crisis.
Al-Khaiwani has been a harsh critic of the government’s hardline response to the unrest in Saada province, and has been in trouble before for his journalism. According to Amnesty, he has suffered years of harassment, death threats, beatings and arbitrary detention. Last year he was abducted by gunmen and was reportedly beaten and threatened with death if he continued to publish articles critical of the government. This appeared to be in response to an article he had written concerning human rights violations in Yemeni prisons. In 2004, after writing about the government’s conduct in the conflict with the northern rebels, Al-Khaiwani was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, charged with incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination.
The journalist’s current ordeal began over a year ago in June 2007 when his home was raided. He was arrested and a state security court accused him of conspiring with anti-government rebels and carrying out terrorist operations. He was released on bail a month later after being formally charged on 4 July. At the time, evidence cited against him appeared to be related to his journalistic work, including possession of widely available news articles and photographs. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), these included a case of CDs found in Al-Khaiwani’s home containing photographs of the government’s fight against rebels in Saada and the effect on local inhabitants, documents about ceasefire negotiations, and an unpublished article by Al-Khaiwani allegedly criticizing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s handling of the conflict. As CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon was quick to point out ‘gathering and possessing news and information is not a crime’.
Human rights groups believe the charges against the journalist are politically motivated and in retaliation against his critical writing. They are also concerned by the various deficiencies in due process. There has been a distinct lack of evidence to substantiate the charges and the trial, which concluded on 9 June 2008, was reportedly not conducted in accordance with international standards of fairness.
At the end of June 2008, Britain committed further financial aid to Yemen, intended to finance development projects to reduce poverty and strengthen basic social and economic infrastructure in impoverished communities and remote areas. So now may be a good time to exert pressure and appeal for Al-Khaiwani’s freedom.
Readers can write, expressing serious concern at the harsh sentence handed down to Abdel Karim Al-Khaiwani, apparently for his critical writings, and calling for his release, to:
His Excellency, Ambassador Mohamed Taha Mustafa
Embassy of the Republic of Yemen
57 Cromwell Road
London SW7 2ED
Fax: (+44) 0207 589 3350
Update: On 22 June 2008, Iranian-Kurdish journalist Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand (LR, July 08) received an eleven-year prison sentence charged with ‘acting against national security’ for his Kurdish rights activism. Please continue to send appeals calling for his release.