Press freedom - Yemen style

June 9 was meant to be press freedom day in Yemen. But this year, the celebration was marred by the 6-year prison sentence of perhaps its most famous dissident journalist, Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, on charges of terrorism.
Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani showing defiance on the day of his sentencing. R.R.

SANAA, June 10, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Despite the distress that appeared on Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani’s face when he entered Yemen's criminal court of security affairs this week, he felt positive things would go in his favor.

Since Al-Khaiwani's arrest in December 2007 for alleged involvement with a Shiite rebel group, there had been a concerted worldwide effort by journalists, human rights organizations and press freedoms organizations to free Al-Khaiwani, a former editor in chief of two newspapers, Al-Shoura and Al-Umma.

Still, on Monday, Al-Khaiwani along with twelve others were given sentences ranging from one to 10 years and in one case the death penalty for their roles in forming "the Second Sana’a Terror Cell," said to be part of the al-Huthi insurgency, which has been battling government security forces since 2004.

He was taken immediately from the courtroom to jail but not before he told a large assembly of journalists and supporters, "This decision is highly political and was taken before the trial even began!"

'Nothing but lies'

According to sources on the ground, after the court decision was read, a large group of Yemeni journalists gathered at the headquarters of the Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate in order to read the sentence, which it condemned shortly thereafter. 

"The ruling was a painful blow to the Yemeni reporter corps on what was meant to be our Press Day," the statement read, adding, "It was a waste of the constitutional and legal assurances related to the right of expression and freedom of the press."

Sami Ghaleb, head of the freedoms committee in the Syndicate, and editor in chief of the independent al-Nida, said the decision had large implications for journalists and activists criticizing Yemen's government.

"The ruling contradicts previous indictments on both the procedural and substantive levels, and it showed that all the actions attributed to Al-Khaiwani are nothing but security lies," Ghaleb said.

According to Ghaleb, "The judge never formally gave proof of Al-Khaiwani’s guilt, and still he sent him to six years."

Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani talks to prison authorities in his
detention cell in Sanaa. © AFP

What is known is that Al-Khaiwani was accused of holding documents and CDs associated with the 12 other accused members of "Sana’a’s Cell Two," which the court contends revealed al-Khaiwani had knowledge about "crimes against humanity" in northeast Yemen.

Al-Huthi insurgency

Since 2004, Yemeni security forces have waged a violent campaign against the Shiite al-Huthi insurgency (named after their late commandeer Hussein al-Huthi) along the border with Saudi Arabia. Thousands have died in the conflict. In June 2007, the two sides signed a peace deal in Qatar but there have been frequent flair-ups of the violence since.

In one controversial chain of events documented by some of Al-Khaiwani's lawyers, photos of the fighting in north Yemen were leaked to international and local media outlets.

Yemeni authorities succeeded in extracting confessions from detained journalists who said they gave Al-Khaiwani pictures captured from the battlefield.

It was on the basis of these confessions that the Yemeni authorities authorized a raid of Al-Khaiwani’s house on June 20, 2007 – the incident that led to the June 9 sentence.

It marks the second time Al-Khiwani has been jailed. He was sentenced to one year of prison on December 2004 for insulting the Yemeni president.

He served seven months of that term before Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh bowed to local and international pressures to release him.

Prison culture

The 42-year old Al-Khaiwani has faced a considerable amount of harassment, both physical and otherwise in the years he has been working as a journalist in Yemen.

After the June 2007 raid, he was jailed for one month and then released on bail due to health problems. During that time, he discovered scores of minors in Yemen's prisons, many of whom were girls, all exposed to the very real threats of prison violence.

Ultimately, Al-Khaiwani wrote an investigative report about prison culture in Yemen, calling it: "Ahead of the state: a homeland behind bars, where the judiciary depletes the souls, minds, and pockets of the prisoners."

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

At the time, Al-Khaiwani openly accused the authorities of this kidnapping.

"I am paying the price for believing the government and its claims about pursuing the 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," Al-Khaiwani told MENASSAT in December.

'A distressing trend'

Al-Khaiwani was the first journalist to stand before Yemen's criminal court of security affairs after it was formed in 2000.

Before that, the court dealt primarily with cases concerning al-Qaeda's growing influence in Yemen, the al-Huthi insurgency, and extreme cases of corruption, kidnapping and drug smuggling.

Currently, there are three other journalists accused by this court for their role in publishing articles in the independent al-Sharea newspaper concerning the army volunteers and their questionable tactics in fighting against the al-Huthi rebels in Sa’dah.

Editor in chief Nayef Hassan, former editing director Nabil Sbea, and editor Mahmoud Taha are awaiting the court's decision, which could be even more punitive after Yemeni Defense Ministry officials have requested they be prosecuted to the full extent of the law – which some have suggested could mean the death penalty. 

The court decision even prompted a statement from U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack who said Al-Khaiwani's six-year prison sentence points to "a distressing trend in Yemen of intimidation and prosecution of independent journalists in criminal and security courts."

On June 17, Al-Khaiwani was scheduled to travel to London to accept Amnesty International's "Special Award For Human Rights Journalism Under Threat."

(Additional reporting by Bashir al-Sayyed.)

► Sign the petition for Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani's release.

More information:


Fearless in Yemen
Posted on 12/18/2007 - 20:37
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. ٌYemen, Abdul-kareem Alkhiwani 

A New Jersey soccer mom's Yemeni crusade
Posted on 05/29/2008 - 15:37
A 46-year-old housewife from New Jersey has become a household name in Yemen because of her unrelenting campaigning for press freedom there. MENASSAT spoke with Jane Novak or simply 'Jane,' as she is known in Yemen. usa yemen 


Yemen: Jailing of journalist in line for human rights award condemned

► From ANHRI: