Yemen: President uses military offensives as cover for attacks on dissidents

Yemeni authorities are taking brutal retaliatory actions against human rights defenders, journalists and critics of the regime's policies, according to IFEX members. In response, 25 Arab rights organisations, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and three other IFEX members, have released a joint statement calling on the government to end kidnappings, forced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests.
Marib, Yemen. 1997 © S.M. /
As the Yemeni government consolidates military support from the international community to fight Al-Qaeda, its assaults on journalists continue. © S.M. /

The government is targeting journalists and activists who have exposed human rights abuses in the country, either in the war between rebels and the military in Saada in the north or in connection to conflict in the south.

On 31 January 2010, the family of Muhammad al-Maqaleh, editor of the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party's news website "Aleshteraki", finally had news since he was kidnapped in Sana'a in September. Journalists in Yemen have been holding regular demonstrations since he disappeared after writing an article criticising airstrikes that killed 87 people and injured 100 in Saada, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He then "vanished without a trace in Yemen's notorious prison system." He continues to be held without charges.

According to CPJ, al-Maqaleh is very weak after being severely beaten and left in the same bloodied clothes for three months.

The joint statement highlights the case of rights defender Yasser al-Wazir, a member of the Yemeni Organisation for the Defense of Rights and Democratic Freedoms, who was recently sentenced to an eight-year prison term. He has played an active role in documenting human rights violations linked to the war in Saada. Abducted more than 18 months ago, held in a secret location and denied family visits, it is believed he was tortured. After a closed-door mock trial his charges include forming an armed group.

In a separate incident last month, two journalists were put behind bars by the Special Court for Journalists, which is known for "muzzling the press and intimidating journalists," reports ARTICLE 19. On January 17, Moaz Al-Ashihabi, a journalist for the "Al Thaqafieh" newspaper, was sentenced to one year in prison for writing an article that "infringes on the Islamic faith."

And on 16 January, writer Anisa Mohammed Ali Othman was sentenced to three months in jail for writing an article that was considered to be offensive to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the "Al-Wasat" newspaper, report the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and other IFEX members. She was charged in response to articles she penned on government corruption in 2007. Othman was not notified about the court date and tried in absentia. Her editor, Jamal Amer, was taken to court for publishing her work and fined US$50. (Amer was the 2006 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner.) Both Othman and Al-Ashihabi have been banned from writing for one year.

"The president can do anything he wants in Yemen, but those who want to express an opinion and criticise what goes on cannot. The support that the western countries are giving this government is unacceptable," Othman told Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

A group of international leaders who met in London recently pledged support for the Yemeni government to address threats from Al-Qaeda in Yemen, reports CPJ. But this public acceptance of the regime will permit President Saleh to increase attacks on dissidents. "The ongoing detention of thousands of political prisoners gives Yemeni journalists plenty of reason to fear for their safety."

The Yemeni Committee to Protect Freedom of Opinion and Expression (CPFEO) released a report in January documenting the detention of seven journalists, says CPJ. It has documented more than 140 press freedom violations in 2009, including death threats, smear campaigns against critical journalists and the banning of newspapers.

"My colleagues and I firmly believe that cracking down on the media and peaceful demonstrations serves the interests of Al-Qaeda," Sami Ghaleb, editor of the independent weekly "Al-Nida", told CPJ. Ghaleb was taken to court this week over his newspaper's coverage of southern unrest.