If prison cells were only for thieves...

Last June, Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani was sentenced to six years in prison for his alleged role in forming a terrorist cell. Rights organizations at the time called the trial a farce, and a means to silence a dissident voice. Wahib Al Nasari of the Qatari newspaper Al-Arab had this exclusive interview with Al-Khaiwani, who remains as defiant as ever.
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Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani stands behind bars at a state security court on October 31, 2007. © AFP

SANA'A, Yemen, August 20, 2008 (AL-ARAB) – Dissident journalist Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani remains behind prison bars in the Yemeni capital San'a.

Al-Khaiwani was arrested in December and sentenced on June 9 to six years in prison for his involvement in aiding the so called "second Sana'a terror cell."  Yemeni authorities said he was directly involved in a plot to blow up military bases and eliminate military commanders.

Since assuming his duties as editor-in-chief of the independent daily Al-Shoura in 2004, Al-Khaiwani was arrested on two occasions and served seven months of a one-year jail sentence for insulting the Yemeni president.

He has made waves by publishing stories about governmental abuse of power, and by addressing Yemeni officials directly for their alleged involvement in corruption, including relatives to President Abdullah Saleh.

Before his last imprisonment, Al-Khaiwani was abducted from his house in downtown Sana'a by unidentified agents. Shortly before that, he had published an article describing his prison experience. The piece, called "Ahead of the state: a homeland behind bars, where the judiciary depletes the souls, minds, and pockets of the prisoners," exposed widespread violations of prisoners' rights.

Al-Khaiwani's latest six-year prison sentence has the human rights community all the more worried because Al-Khaiwani is in bad health and he might not survive his prison sentence.

Just before the court ruling, he recorded a statement for Amnesty International, which said, "I hold president Saleh direct responsibility for any harm that might happen to me or to any member of my family."

From behind prison bars, the most famous political dissident in Yemen talked to Al-Arab about his imprisonment and his experience over the last four years with the Yemeni judiciary.

"If prison cells were strictly for thieves,

they would have long self-destructed.

But they retain hope

of one day receiving a free man,

so that with honor it would be filled"

(Palestinian poem)


AL-ARAB: First, can we know about the background of your imprisonment?

The decision for my imprisonment came from the highest levels of government, instructions from above that derailed any real course of justice, from fabricated charges, to non-incriminating evidence such as compact discs and articles that were never published, to an unfounded verdict. All this was topped off with a legal flair – with the last paragraph of my sentence, which essentially insured the immediate effectiveness of my sentence. It was not something the judge himself ordered, but it was there, recorded by the cameras of thirteen different channels and news agencies.
Were you expecting a six-year prison sentence?

My experience with the judiciary made me prepared for jail time, and what's more, I knew the judiciary was not independent, and the court was an exceptional state security court, known to aim for convictions only… I knew it would be a court that did not look into the case or the defense prepared by the lawyers – no matter how good they were, or their arguments were. I was prepared.

A member of the former presidential committee for ending the war in Sa'da [a separatist region in north Yemen, Ed.], Abdo Al-Jindi, spoke live on Al-Jazeera a few months ago and said he would issue a verdict against me,  convicting me.  

Al-Jindi also expressed amusement about the terrorist charge that I was being convicted of, and I knew to expect that this was coming from some official side, and not from an independent judiciary with integrity.

Still, I had hoped that the judiciary would work to gain people's trust by issuing just verdicts, especially in this case that has had such an impact on public opinion. But it seems that no one cares; they are just angered by the truth.

You appeared surprised in the media when the sentence was pronounced, as if you did not expect such a sentence?

Perhaps I was surprised by the ferocity of the sentence against not just myself, but all who were tried with me.

[Editor's Note: Al-Khaiwani was sentenced along with twelve others who were given sentences ranging from one to ten 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.]

Someone who sold medicine was sentenced to five years in prison, and the one who bought it eight years! And where is the crime?!

My surprise was not because of my expectations, but rather because I received information before the verdict about the judge who issued the verdict, Mouhsin Alwan. He had spoken in front of fellow journalists Abdel Bari Taher, Balqis Al-Lahabi and Abdel Rashid Faqih, and said, word by word, "There is no gang, and the description of a gang does not apply. He was referring to those supposedly aiding the Sana’a terror cell.

I was told through certain channels to rest assured, and that the judge had not received any calls about the case. This was two weeks before the verdict. How should I not be surprised by such audacity to disregard justice and the stature of the judiciary?

"How ugly life can be when the adversary and the judge are the same person, and how ugly the homeland becomes when rulers hold a grudge in the Arab world. How ugly deception, lies, impotence, failure and hypocrisy are when they become the size of a state"

(Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, August 2008)


AL-ARAB: Some view the verdict as political, a personal vendetta against you. What is the way out of prison for you?

This is true. The verdict is a curse and mistreatment of someone who the president Ali Abdullah Saleh hates. The way out of prison is through respect for the law and the integrity of the judiciary and its independence, as it should be,. The wrong done should be mended, first by my release, since the clause about immediate implementation of the sentence was added after the sentence was pronounced, which jeopardizes the verdict if we were to challenge the judge.

(...) The whole trial has been a big mockery. It requires immediate mending instead of intimidating journalists to abandon their conscience as some in charge of the judiciary do. The absence of justice has made the courts a battleground for personal vendettas.

AL-ARAB: There is talk in political and media circles that you are required to issue a personal apology to President Saleh?

There is nothing personal between me and president Saleh that requires an apology. If  there was, I'm not of those too proud to admit mistakes. But I insist there is nothing personal here, and those who talk like this have to clarify what it is exactly that I must apologize for, to the president or to any other citizen. I would be thankful for the clarification.

Also, what is the meaning of [exchanging] a trial and a prison sentence for an apology? This only proves that behind the verdict lie other reasons than the ones I was tried for, and was charged with.     
In general, I don't think it is appropriate for the president to deal with the issue in such a manner, especially since there is no personal dispute with the president as a person at all,... Having different opinions does not mean personal hate, even if opinion means criticism of some practices, and we have to be clear about these differences.

AL-ARAB: Where do political parties stand regarding freedom issues and your detention?

The political parties' positions on human rights and freedom of expression are generally vague in Yemen and they from one party to another. To some, human rights are the rights of the people; others approach it according to their own agendas, and those cannot be depended on much. If they had had any real effort or input on human rights issues, things would not have reached such a deteriorated state in Yemen.

I would not be exaggerating if I said that some parties view human rights in the same way as the ruling party and the authorities, with little regard for social conditions.

AL-ARAB: You are paying the price for belonging to a Al-Huthi terrorist cell, according to the evidence presented against you, what do you say?

As a matter of fact, I am paying the price for expanding the limits of freedom of expression in Yemen since 2004, and my continuous persecution confirms this. The wide support [for my cause] and [the stain on] Yemen's international reputation for imprisoning a journalist have made the authorities change the charge to a charge of terrorism as an attempt to limit international solidarity with my case. But that did not happen.

International rights and press freedom organizations, as well as local rights organizations, have refused the charge against Al-Khaiwany from the beginning. Also, the nature of the evidence and the charges confirm that the case continues an official policy of oppressing journalism and journalists.

And why was Al-Shoura newspaper confiscated and the website banned?

"Everything in the country has deteriorated.
Why should prison be any better?
The rule of law that is missing on the outside
is missing even more inside the prison"

(Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, August 2008)


AL-ARAB: How are you being treated in prison?

I'm being treated as a political prisoner, the journalist who angered the president and the authorities. So you can imagine what it's like, and how you are treated when the president is your nemesis.

AL-ARAB: How does your 2004 prison experience compare to 2008? Any differences?

 The prison does not differ much. It is harsher now, not because of the abuse I suffer as a result of the diabetes, but because everything in the country has deteriorated.

Why should prison be any better? It has been deteriorating as well, and the rule of law that is missing on the outside is missing even more inside the prison.

I will pay for what I am saying when [this] is published.

This last experience has been much worse; it is an intentionally slow murder process.

AL-ARAB: Did the recent award granted to you by Amnesty International compensate the shock of the verdict? What does that award mean to Al-Khaiwani, morally and financially?

[Editor's Note: Al-Khaiwani was awarded Amnesty International's Special Award for Human Rights Journalism Under Threat in June 2008.]

I knew of the award prior to my sentence. Judge Alwan even told me before the sentencing: "Better prepare yourself for London," after I'd asked him if I was banned from traveling!

True, the award is very important. It is great to have someone who appreciates you among all this arbitrary persecution. And it's good to have international solidarity when the authorities save no efforts in persecuting you.

The authorities are being stupid and reckless with this case, and so blatantly. But I am happy with the award, and grateful for Amnesty International in London for granting me this award.

I am aware of its value. Being given annually to a single journalist in jeopardy and presented in an event attended by respected journalists, it sheds light on that journalist and the condition of certain freedoms in his country. As for the financial side, I am not aware of that yet.
AL-ARAB: When you were editor-in-chief of Al-Shoura newspaper you published reports that some thought were risky and dangerous, like talking about inheriting power in Yemen. What were the actual results of publishing them?

Issues of power succession, corruption, oil, rights violations, the war in Sa'da... these were all issues being discussed within the larger issue of how does the ruler rule. We wanted to diagnose the disruptions, as an introduction to demanding reforms, and showing their necessity.

But the whole thing was turned into the question of WHO rules, rather than, HOW he rules, and it was perceived as a personal issue. I'm in prison for the third time because of this now.

I was kidnapped in midday, banned from traveling, and my life was turned into hell for angering the president. All at once I was labeled a terrorist, just like that. Notice how military authorities accuse a civilian citizen with nothing but a pen of conspiring to overthrow the regime.

Now the law is being tampered with in order to protect and make holy all officials, as if they make no mistakes, placing them above all accountability. Criticizing a public servant for his performance is punishable by 15 years in prison.

In the past, we were somewhat allowed to discuss corruption without naming the corrupt, and when the media started pointing out the corrupt, they started a discussion in the parliament to place officials beyond questioning and accountability, and punishment also.

AL-ARAB: Let's suppose your children, Ayat, Majd Eddine, and Mohammad, appear suddenly in front of you, visiting you in jail, what would you say to them, from behind the bars?

I don't like my children to see me behind bars, for the sake of their well-being. Still, sometimes I am forced to see them.

I have tried, as part of a preparation process, to teach them these lines by a Palestinian poet:

If prison cells were strictly for thieves,
the cells would have long self-destructed.
But they retains a hope of one day receiving a free man,
so that with honor it would be filled.

AL-ARAB: What about freedom of press in Yemen?

In reality, press freedom in Yemen is deplorable. If we look at Yemen's ranking in reports by international rights and freedom organizations, we see it lingering very close to the bottom.

And observing the facts on the ground, we'll find methodological and well-planned oppression of the press. Beatings, kidnapping, trials, unjust sentences, newspaper closures, blocking news websites... It amounted to 250 cases last year, which is too much.

And it will probably increase even more. There is a new draft Press and Publication Law, which is an epitaph of backwardness that not does belong to this century and which will further restrict journalists.

To be a journalist is to be criminalized these days; and under the penal law, which constitutes a crackdown on freedom of press that violates the constitution.

President Saleh's promise, four years ago, not to imprison journalists was only empty words. Yemen is no longer a safe environment for journalistic work. The oppression of journalists is now under the charge of "the council of virtue", which is all about glorifying ignorance.

I believe that what is coming will be worse for the country, the press, and the journalists.

AL-ARAB: Any last words?

How ugly life can be when the adversary and the judge are the same person, and how ugly the homeland becomes when rulers hold a grudge in the Arab world. How ugly deception, lies, impotence, failure and hypocrisy are when they become the size of a state.

Injustice could last for a while, but it will end sometime, and if we do not sacrifice, then we are hypocrites. Change requires sacrifice!

Let us teach people sacrifice, if we find no other way to express ourselves, and let our death be a mark of shame in the life of the oppressors, as our lives were thorns in the eyes of darkness.

(This article was republished with the explicit permission of Wahib Al Nasari and the Al-Arab newspaper. All rights reserved.)