CPJ alarmed by criminal convictions of journalists

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a series of criminal convictions handed down against several Yemeni newspaper editors and reporters in reprisal for their work. These convictions have severely undermined press freedom in Yemen.

In recent weeks, at least seven Yemeni journalists have been sentenced by criminal courts in retaliation for critical reporting on domestic events and in violation of internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression. One editor remains in prison despite an earlier pledge by Your Excellency to eliminate prison penalties for press offenses.

Most recently, on December 29, 2004, Abdulkarim Sabra, editor of the private weekly Al-Hurriya (The Freedom), and Abdulqawi al-Qabati, a reporter with the newspaper, were each sentenced to two years in prison by a criminal court in Sana’a, the capital, for allegedly “insulting” Your Excellency in an article published in the newspaper, Sabra’s lawyer, Abdelaziz Al-Samawi, told CPJ. The court also banned the newspaper from publishing for a year.

The case against the two men stemmed from al-Qabati’s October 13, 2004, article that was highly critical of Arab leaders, including Your Excellency. Sabra and al-Qabati have not been jailed as yet, according to local journalists, but could be at any moment.

The convictions of Sabra and al-Qabati came just three days after Yemeni courts handed down suspended prison terms to at least five journalists in cases relating to their published work, according to press reports and local journalists.

Abdel Rahman Abdullah, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Tagammu (The Rally), was given a six-month suspended prison sentence after being found guilty of publishing false information. The charge was based on an article about an alleged Libyan government plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Prince Abdullah Al-Saud. Nabil Subai, a reporter with Al-Tagammu, received a four-month suspended sentence when the same court found him guilty of harming relations with Saudi Arabia in an article in which he criticized the Saudi government’s treatment of political dissidents and accused it of not being serious about political reform.

Abdelwahid Hawash and Abdel Jabbar Saad–editor and reporter, respectively, for the small circulation pro-Baathist weekly Al-Ihyaa Al-Arabi (The Arab Revival)both received six-month suspended prison sentences for allegedly harming relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, according to local journalists. The charge stemmed from articles published last year that, among other things, criticized Saudi Arabia for its position on the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and its crackdown on militant groups operating in the Kingdom.

In a third case, Hamid Shahra, editor of Al-Nas (The People) weekly, was handed a three-month suspended prison sentence for allegedly defaming the minister of local administration after the newspaper published an article that accused the minister of hiring friends to government posts and using his office for financial gain, according to Jamal al-Jaabi, a lawyer for Shahra.

These convictions follow a disturbing development in September when editor Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura (The Consultation), was sentenced to one year in prison for incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination. The court also suspended Al-Shoura for six months.
The charges against al-Khaiwani stemmed from nine opinion pieces published in the July 7 issue of the weekly, which was dedicated to discussing the Yemeni government’s fight against rebel cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Hawthi, who led a three-month uprising against authorities in the northern Yemeni region of Saada. Hundreds were reportedly killed during the uprising, and government forces killed al-Hawthi on September 10. He remains in prison.

These cases call into question Yemen’s commitment to a free and open press. Regrettably, criminal convictions continue to be handed down despite Your Excellency’s 2004 pledge to work toward the elimination of prison sentences for press offenses.

CPJ urges Your Excellency to examine all possible legal options to ensure that the Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani is released immediately from jail and that Yemeni authorities halt further legal attacks against journalists carrying out their work.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director