In January 2011, a Yemeni state security court gave the journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a five-year prison sentence on terrorism-related charges following a trial that has been condemned by several human rights and press freedom groups. Within a month of Shaye’s sentencing, then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that he was going to pardon the journalist – and it should be noted that the imprisonment and pardon of journalists is repeated time and again by the Yemeni authorities as a way to “bludgeon journalists into submission”. But on this occasion, Saleh changed his mind. Thirteen months later Shaye remains behind bars.
The Obama administration is now facing criticism for its role in the continuing imprisonment of Shaye, especially in light of the fact that Saleh’s unusual decision not to issue a pardon appears to have been made in direct response to a phone call from President Obama.
Prior to his arrest, Shaye broke a number of important stories about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as recording the last known interview with Anwar al-Awlaki just before it was revealed that Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric, was on a CIA hit list. Shaye also exposed how the United States was behind a 2009 bombing in Yemen that killed 14 women and 21 children.
On Thursday [March 15th], Democracy Now! examined the case and its significance in an extended report and interviews with Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and award-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, whose latest article published in The Nation is entitled “Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?”
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I learned about his case because of the bombing of al-Majala in December of 2009. You’ll recall it was the first time that President Obama, that we know of, authorized a U.S. strike against Yemen. And when the strike initially happened, the United States’ position was to say nothing. There were some anonymous officials that had leaked some information to news networks indicating that the U.S. was behind the bombing, but the official position was that it was a Yemeni strike and that an al-Qaeda camp had been targeted and that 34 members of al-Qaeda had been killed.
Then Amnesty International obtained photographs of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs from the scene and pictures and video of the bodies of dead women and children. And Amnesty International then determined that it had to have been a U.S. strike, because Yemen didn’t have those missiles and didn’t have those cluster bombs, and that, in fact, the victims of—among the victims of that strike were a tremendous number of women and children. Well, the individual who provided that documentary evidence to Al Jazeera—or, excuse me, to Amnesty International and to Al Jazeera and other networks was Abdulelah Haider Shaye.
MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Yeah. The trial does not pass the laugh test, at all. And the court does not pass the laugh test. And actually, in my research, I could not locate a single case that was tried in this special—specialized criminal tribunal—you can just tell by the name that this is—this is not going to be a serious affair. I could not find a single case that met, even remotely, like fair trial standards. So there’s no transparency. There’s no proper appeals process. Lawyers are deprived of a lot of the files. Things are slid in last minute. It just failed to meet those standards. And this is not just my opinion, but this was observed by every single person who attended these sessions, when they were allowed to attend.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What’s important to realize here, and what Mohamed is saying, is that, on one side of this, you have major media freedom organizations. You have major human rights organizations—Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International. You have every legal and human rights organization in Yemen. You have very prominent foreign correspondents who have spoken out on this case, some of whom knew Abdulelah Haider Shaye. So they’re on one side of it, condemning his trial as a sham, talking about who he actually was as a journalist.
And on the other side of it, you have the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a specialized criminal tribunal set up to go after journalists, and the White House. And so, President Obama is the single person keeping that man in prison right now, because even the dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was prepared to release him, and it was a phone call, not from one of Obama’s people, from Obama himself, that kept him in prison.
And so, when I called the State Department, one of the things I said is, “What is the evidence that you have to support your contention that Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a terrorist or is affiliated with al-Qaeda?” And they said, “We don’t have anything to say on that right now.” So, you know, that’s how much of a sham this is. So anyone who wants to say, “Well, Obama must know what he’s doing,” needs to realize that you’re taking a position against major human rights organizations and journalist organizations against the United States, which is currently engaged in its biggest crackdown on whistleblowers in history. So just be clear on what side of the line you’re on, if you’re a journalist, when you say that.
Click here to watch the report and interviews and to read a full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
Yesterday’s Storyville also premiered Sean McAllister’s powerful documentary “The Reluctant Revolutionary”. The film follows the political awakening of Kais, a tour guide in Sana’a, who although initially irritated by the demonstrations, gradually feels inspired to join them. A very intimate and at times deeply shocking film, Kais and Sean McAllister ultimately become eyewitnesses to the massacre of 52 protesters almost exactly a year ago [“Friday of Dignity” March 18, 2011] that helped put an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year reign in Yemen.
Storyville: The Reluctant Revolutionary
broadcast on BBC4 at 10:00pm-11:10pm on Monday 19th March
Director: Sean McAllister
Click here for link to BBC iplayer
Available on BBC iplayer until 12:09 am on Tuesday, 3rd April 2012