President Obama Keeps a Yemeni Journalist in Jail

October 3, 2012

drones yemen
Unexlpoded BLU 97 cluster bomlet, part of the evidence found in 2009 US attack.

Why would President Obama want a Yemeni journalist, known for his reports of human rights abuses, to remain in Yemeni prison?

That’s the question Abdul Ilah Haydar Shayi’ wants to know after two years in detention following his reports – later proven correct — that the United States was involved in a deadly attack on an alleged al-Qa’ida training camp which took place on Dec. 17, 2009.

Abdul Ilah Haydar Shayi’ was the first Yemeni journalist to allege US involvement in the missile attack on the community of al-Ma’jalah. Shortly after the attack – which killed 41 local residents, including 21 children and 14 women – he wrote articles and spoke to news channel Al Jazeera and newspapers. In addition, 14 alleged al-Qa’ida members were also reportedly killed in the missile attack.

For telling the truth, Shayi' was targeted by both the Yemen and American governments.
Yemen’s government initially said its forces had acted alone in the attack on al-Ma’jalah, but shortly afterwards US media outlets published alleged statements by anonymous US government sources claiming President Obama approved the use of US missiles being fired at two alleged al-Qa’ida sites in Yemen.

In June 2010 Amnesty International released images of a US-manufactured Tomahawk cruise missile that carried cluster sub-munitions, apparently taken near al-Ma’jalah after the December 2009 airstrike. The organization further claimed that such missiles were only known to be held by the US forces at that time and that Yemeni armed forces were unlikely to be capable of using such a missile.

This finding was later corroborated when WikiLeaks released a US diplomatic cable confirming that US forces had carried out the attack.

For telling the truth, Shayi’ was targeted by both the Yemen and American governments. He was hauled before the Specialized Criminal Court on charges that Amnesty believes were based on legitimate journalistic activity, indeed what many other journalists, including Americans have done.

The charge of communicating with “wanted men” appears to have been connected to his work as an investigative journalist. Shayi’ himself does not deny having had contact with members of al-Qa’ida but said that this was in relation to his work as a journalist. His lawyers say the prosecution submitted no evidence that their client had worked with or supported al-Qa’ida. Amnesty International has not seen anything that would substantiate any of the charges against him.

Shayi’ was sentenced to five years in prison and a travel ban for two years following his release. Amnesty International and other human rights groups led international protests against the sentence, and in Feb. 2011 then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh issued an order to free him. But at that point the American government stepped in with US President Barack Obama expressing concern over the release. The release order was subsequently reversed.

So Shayi’ is left with the question as to why President Obama wants a truth-telling journalist in jail. He sits in prison on the basis of no convincing evidence presented in an unfair trial before a special court that failed to meet international legal standards. The bottom line is even as President Obama speaks out against unfair detentions in the Middle East of people exercising their free speech, his actions in this case has made him and the US government complicit in the same abuses he criticizes.

You can help Shayi’ by taking action and writing to President Obama and Yemeni officials.