Fearless in Yemen

Veteran Yemeni journalist Abed al-Karim Al-Khiwani is going through an unprecedented legal battle to prove that he is not a terrorist plotting to topple the regime.
By Bashir al-Sayyed in Sana'a
ٌYemen, Abdul-kareem Alkhiwani
Abed al-Karim Al-Khiwani after his kidnapping. R.R.

SANA'A, Dec. 17, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) – On the morning of June 20, 2007, in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, veteran journalist Abed al-Karim Al-Khiwani was arrested by a security team during an early morning raid at his home.

According to the accused, the police beat him out of his sleep and dragged him into the street in his pajamas as his five children and wife watched on in horror.

He was charged as a terrorist and placed second on a list of ten suspects accused of being affiliated with a terrorist cell named “the second cell of San’a.” The government accused the group of “plotting violent activities and planning to blow up military and governmental headquarters, in addition to liquidating military leaders and poisoning the drinking water.”

The state officially charged Al-Khiwani with “plotting to topple the ruling regime” and put him under provisional detention.

Abed al-Karim Al-Khiwani was used to such tactics. In the fifteen-plus years he has been working as a journalist, the 42-year old has experienced blatant censorship and a ban on his work that lasted four years. He was known throughout Yemen for his scathing pieces against the government and had been in and out of prison for years.

This time, however, he was being held based on information obtained from items confiscated during the June raid: personal documents, a laptop, a camera and a mobile phone.

In total, Al-Khiwani spent 31 days in prison and was released on bond due to his medical situation. (Al-Khalil had had bypass surgery a few months before he was arrested).

And while Al-Khiwani’s defense called for the state to drop the charges against him, citing larger constitutional problems with his arrest, the case is still in limbo pending a final decision from the court on the matter.

Al-Khiwani and the authorities

Observers of the case say it was clear that the authorities wanted to silence Al-Khiwani once and for all.

When Al-Khiwani assumed leadership of the editorial staff of the opposition paper Al-Shoura in early 2004, he helped explore issues that were considered untouchable subjects in the press.

Under his leadership, Al-Shoura exposed an illegal plan by Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power to his eldest son. Al-Shoura also uncovered rampant corruption in the economic and petroleum sectors and wrote about serious human rights violations in north Yemen against followers of the insurgent Hussein Al-Houthi.

Al-Khiwani was continually harassed and charged with numerous offenses: insulting the president, stirring up regional sensitivities, and endangering national security were among the charges leveled against him.

In 2004, he was sentenced to one year in prison (the preliminary verdict) for allegedly supporting the northern Houthist insurgency. The Yemeni authorities prevented any of Al-Khiwani’s appeals of reaching the Appeals Court, and he spent seven months in prison.

During his detention in 2004, massive international and local criticism was directed at the Yemeni government.

Legal and civic activists conducted a fierce public relations campaign to secure Al-Khiwani’s release. A presidential decree was issued seven months into Al-Khiwani’s prison term. Al-Shoura newspaper started publishing again shortly after his release.

Al-Shoura daily and the insurrectionist crew

When fighting between government forces and Houthist rebels broke out in northern Yemen (Sa’dah) in 2005, Al-Shoura once again confronted the government’s military policies. 

The Yemeni authorities adopted new measures to mute Al-Khiwani. It arranged a leadership coup within the union that published Al-Shoura, the Union of Public Forces, and while Al-Shoura continued to publish under the new leadership, the paper had been effectively silenced as an opposition voice.

Al-Khiwani then turned to the Internet and launched Al-Shoura.net where he continued to report on issues of corruption and abuse of power in the government.

Al-Shoura.net was banned in January 2007, after a third round of fighting broke out in Sa'dah, and since the beginning of this year, the Yemeni government has imposed a strict media blackout – censoring journalists and detaining legal activists who sympathize with the Houthist rebels.

In one controversial chain of events, photos of the fighting in north Yemen were leaked to international and local media outlets.

The authorities succeeded in extracting confessions from detained journalists who said that they gave Al-Khiwani pictures captured from the battlefield.

It was on the basis of these confessions that the Yemeni authorities authorized the June 20 raid of Al-Khiwani’s house.

Prison and Kidnapping

Al-Khiwani’s resolve against government intimidation has been shaped by his various stints in prison.

During his most recent imprisonment in July of this year, Al-Khiwani was put in the central prison of San’ah. While there, he discovered broad infringements against prisoners' rights. He listened to the stories of prisoners with long term sentences and those without judicial verdicts. He discovered prisoners who had completed their sentences but still lingered in jail because elements of the state or the military prevented their release.

Al-Khiwani also discovered scores of minors in the prisons, many of whom were girls, all exposed to the very real threats of prison violence. Ultimately, Al-Khiwani wrote an investigative report about prison culture in Yemen, calling it: “Ahead of the state: a homeland behind bars, where judiciary depletes the souls, minds, and pockets of the prisoners.”

On August, 27, 2007, just a few days before publishing the report, six men kidnapped Al-Khiwani in a public square in front of other journalists, store owners and by-standers.

Eighty kilometers east of Sana’a, Al-Khiwani’s kidnappers wrapped a piece of cloth over his eyes and they took turns beating him on his face, head, and chest, all the while asking him about his article, “Ahead of the state, a homeland behind bar.”

One of his interrogators asked him about the hand he used for writing and Al-Khiwani pointed to his left hand, so he approached and put a wire cutter on his left finger. Another interrogator intervened, saying: “The orders are clear. We don’t want anything too obvious.”

Before Al-Khiwani was released, his kidnappers asked him to swear not to write about others (who were neither named, nor described).

“Who are the others?,” Al-Khiwani asked his kidnappers.

“You only have to swear!”

So he swore not to write about others.

Then they threatened to kill him and his family members if he resumed writing.

On the morning after he was released, the government newspapers published a denial attributed to a security source who said the kidnapping “was a play carried out by Al-Khiwani to gain the sympathy of public opinion in his case that is being examined by the State Security Court.”

Recently, Al-Khiwani identified one of the kidnappers, and said he was among the same security group that broke into his house on June 20.

As Al-Khiwani told MENASSAT.COM, “I am paying the price for believing the government and its claims about pursuing rise of democracy. After they broke into my house and terrified my family and kidnapped me in public, in front of the Al-Nida newspaper, I have this feeling that the authorities have decided to spill my blood.”

Three weeks ago, in a last ditch effort, Al-Khiwani went to the offices of Amnesty International in Sana’a to give them his last will and testament: “I hold the president directly responsible for anything that happens to me or to my family.”