Friday, 17 February 2012
IPI Reminds U.S., Yemen of Journalist Rights
By: Naomi Hunt, Press Freedom Adviser
VIENNA, Feb 17, 2012 – IPI is increasingly concerned about the health of Yemeni journalist Abdul Elah Haidar Shaia, who reportedly began a hunger strike on 12 February to protest against his alleged mistreatment, and continued imprisonment. His health is reportedly failing, and he has allegedly been subjected to terrible prison conditions and prevented from receiving visits from his colleagues and friends, according to a joint action issued by the Yemen Syndicate of Journalists this week and other journalists.
In a separate incident, BBC reporter Abdullah Ghorab was attacked on Wednesday by men with knives and batons believed to be supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the news network reported. BBC World Service Editor Liliane Landor was quoted as saying: "We are deeply concerned that this was a deliberate attack and we condemn it in the strongest terms." She noted that Ghorab had been "detained and assaulted on two previous occasions and was verbally attacked by Yemen deputy information minister last September”. IPI condemns the assault.
Shaia, meanwhile, has been in detention since August 2010, when he was first accused of supporting the Al Qaeda terrorist network. As a journalist for the state-run Saba news agency who specialised in terrorism, Shaia was in touch with a wide range of militants, tribesmen and officials, and in 2009 managed to obtain an exclusive interview with Anwar al-Awlaqi for the Al Jazeera network, reports said. According to AFP, Shaia was also known for his close ties to al-Awlaqi, the accused Al-Qaeda operative and spokesman who was killed in an airstrike in Yemen last year. But Shaia was accused of doing more than interviewing Al-Qaeda members – he was charged with supporting their work.
In July 2010 Shaia was detained by security forces and questioned about his reporting on Al Qaeda in Yemen; in August, he was arrested for allegedly belonging to and supporting the terrorism network. He was convicted in January 2011 by a special terrorism court, which sentenced him to five years in prison for taking pictures of potential Al Qaeda targets and recruiting for the organisation. A month later, amid growing protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, an order was issued for his release.
But after an eleventh hour intervention by United States President Barack Obama, who raised “concerns” about the pardon, Shaia was left in prison, where he has remained ever since.
Shaia has defended himself against the accusations, saying that he was only doing his job as a journalist. His legal team also take issue with the form in which he was prosecuted, noting that the establishment of special courts is illegal under the Yemeni constitution.
“We would like to remind the authorities in the United States and Yemen of the right of journalists to report on a broad array of views and positions, including those of militant and terrorist groups,” said IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills. “If Abdul Elah Shaia has been detained because of his work for Al-Jazeera and other networks in reporting on Al-Qaeda and the airstrikes against them, he should be freed immediately.”
Critics have said that Shaia is in jail because he helped expose the loss of civilian life that resulted from U.S.-led airstrikes on the country in 2009, according to reports. According to a report in the Yemen Times, Shaia was “the first journalist to cover the death of 42 civilians in Al-Ma’jalla in Abyan, south Yemen, after a drone strike on Dec 17, 2009 on the area. The strike had allegedly targeted an Al Qaeda military training camp.”
The extent of the United States’ role in bombing alleged terrorist targets in Yemen throughout 2009 and 2010 has only gradually come to light, and in June 2011, the New York Times reported that the U.S. was again intensifying its air campaign “after a nearly year-long pause in American airstrikes, which were halted amid concerns that poor intelligence had led to bungled missions and civilian deaths that were undercutting the goals of the secret campaign.”
American involvement in the strikes has come under attack by critics, including those who believe that the bloodshed has helped Islamist extremists win Yemeni hearts and minds. Jeremy Scahill, in a feature published this week by The Nation, quoted one Yemeni journalist as saying, “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” and helped “recruit thousands.”
Yemeni journalists continue to see an American hand in Shaia’s detention, though they are hopeful that, as a result of international pressure and continued demonstrations within Yemen, the journalist will soon be freed.
In January, the Yemen Times quoted another journalist and political activist, Samya Al-Aghbari, as saying, “Shaye’ was arrested by US orders to the Yemeni government for his analysis on the American airstrikes against Abyan and Arhab.”
The United States has come under fire in the past for jailing journalists for their alleged ties to terrorists. Sudanese journalist Sami al-Hajj, who worked for the Al-Jazeera network, was held in Guantanamo Bay from 2001 to 2008, when he was released without charge. Documents from the prison that were subsequently made public by Wikileaks showed that he was being held in part so that he could be questioned about his work for Al Jazeera and his relation to contacts that were made as part of his work.