Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?
March 13, 2012
Abdulelah Haider Shaye. Credit: Iona Craig.
On February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The two discussed counterterrorism cooperation and the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of the call, according to a White House read-out, Obama “expressed concern” over the release of a man named Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whom Obama said “had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.” It turned out that Shaye had not yet been released at the time of the call, but Saleh did have a pardon for him prepared and was ready to sign it. It would not have been unusual for the White House to express concern about Yemen’s allowing AQAP suspects to go free. Suspicious prison breaks of Islamist militants in Yemen had been a regular occurrence over the past decade, and Saleh has been known to exploit the threat of terrorism to leverage counterterrorism dollars from the United States. But this case was different. Abdulelah Haider Shaye is not an Islamist militant or an Al Qaeda operative. He is a journalist.
Shaye had no reverence for Al Qaeda, but viewed the group as an important story, according to Sharaf. Shaye was able to get access to Al Qaeda figures in part due to his relationship, through marriage, to the radical Islamic cleric Abdul Majid al Zindani, the founder of Iman University and a US Treasury Department–designated terrorist. While Sharaf acknowledged that Shaye used his connections to gain access to Al Qaeda, he adds that Shaye also “boldly” criticized Zindani and his supporters: “He said the truth with no fear.”
While Shaye, 35, had long been known as a brave, independent-minded journalist in Yemen, his collision course with the US government appears to have been set in December 2009. On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike. The Pentagon would not comment on the strike and the Yemeni government repeatedly denied US involvement. But Shaye was later vindicated when Wikileaks released a US diplomatic cable that featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own parliament about the US role, while President Saleh assured Gen. David Petraeus that his government would continue to lie and say “the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Seven months after the Majala bombing, in July 2010, Sharaf and Shaye were out running errands. Sharaf popped into a supermarket, while Shaye waited outside. When Sharaf came out of the store, he recalls, “I saw armed men grabbing him and taking him to a car.” The men, it turned out, were Yemeni intelligence agents. They snatched Shaye, hooded him and took him to an undisclosed location. The agents, according to Sharaf, threatened Shaye and warned him against making further statements on TV. Shaye’s reports on the Majala bombing and his criticism of the US and Yemeni governments, Sharaf said, “pushed the regime to kidnap him. One of the interrogators told him, ‘We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue.’” Eventually, in the middle of the night, Shaye was dumped back onto a street and released. “Abdulelah was threatened many times over the phone by the Political Security and then he was kidnapped for the first time, beaten and investigated over his statements and analysis on the Majala bombing and the US war against terrorism in Yemen,” says Shaye’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman. “I believe he was arrested upon a request from the US.”
Shaye responded to his abduction by going back on al Jazeera and describing his own arrest. “Abdulelah continued to report facts, not for the sake of the Americans or Al Qaeda, but because he believed that what he was reporting was the truth and that it is a journalist’s role to uncover the truth,” says Sharaf. “He is a very professional journalist,” he adds. “He is rare in the journalistic environment in Yemen where 90 percent of journalists write extempore and lack credibility.” Shaye, he explains, is “very open-minded and rejects extremism. He was against violence and the killing of innocents in the name of Islam. He was also against killing innocent Muslims with pretext of fighting terrorism. In his opinion, the war on terror should have been fought culturally, not militarily. He believes using violence will create more violence and encourage the spread of more extremist currents in the region.”
In the meantime, Sharaf was encountering his own troubles with the Yemeni regime over his drawings of President Saleh and his criticism of the Yemeni government’s war against the minority Houthi population in the north of Yemen. He had also criticized conservative Salafis. And he was Shaye’s best friend.
On August 6, 2010, Sharaf and his family had just broken the Ramadan fast when he heard shouting from outside his home: “Come out, the house is surrounded.” Sharaf walked outside. “I saw soldiers I had never seen before. They were tall and heavy—they reminded me of American Marines. Then, I knew that they were from the counterterrorism unit. They had modern laser guns. They were wearing American Marine–type uniforms,” he recalls. They told Sharaf he was coming with them. “What is the accusation?” he asked. “They said, ‘You’ll find out.’ ”
As Sharaf was being arrested, Yemeni forces had surrounded Shaye’s home as well. “Abdulelah refused to come out, so they raided his house, took him by force, beat him and broke his tooth,” Sharaf says. “We were both taken blindfolded and handcuffed to the national security prison, which is supported by the Americans.” They were separated and thrown in dark, underground cells, says Sharaf. “We were kept for about thirty days during Ramadan in the national security prison where we were continuously interrogated.”
For that first month, Sharaf and Shaye did not see each other. Eventually, they were taken from the national security prison to Yemen’s Political Security prison, where they were put in a cell together. “We were transferred to the political security prison built by Saddam Hussein, his gift to Yemen,” he says. “We were moved from the American gift to the Iraqi gift.” (The Nation could not independently verify Sharaf’s claim of an Iraqi role in the building of the prison. And while the US trains and supports Yemen’s counterterrorism force, it is not clear if that aid has been used for the national security prison). Sharaf was eventually released, after he pledged to the authorities that he would not draw any more cartoons of President Saleh. Shaye would make no such deal.
Shaye was held in solitary confinement for thirty-four days with no access to a lawyer. His family did not even know where he had been taken or why. Eventually, his lawyers received a tip from a released prisoner that Shaye was in the Political Security prison and they were able to see him. “When Abdulelah was arrested, he was put in a narrow dirty and foul smelling bathroom for five days.I noticed that one of Abdulelah’s teeth was extracted and another one was broken, in addition to presence of some scars on his chest,” recalls Barman. “There were a lot scars on his chest. He was psychologically tortured. He had been told that all his friends and family members had left him and that no one had raised his case. He was tortured by false information.”=
This cartoon, drawn by Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s friend, Kamal Sharaf, portrays Shaye locked up while US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein holds the key. The words above the cartoon read: Freedom for the Journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye.