Calls for immediate release of jailed editor, protests recent prosecutions

Washington, D.C., February 8, 2005—A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists met with Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, Abdulwahab Abdulla al-Hajjri, today to express deep concern about the imprisonment of a Yemeni opposition newspaper editor and a recent spate of criminal convictions handed down against several other journalists.

Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura, was sentenced to one year in prison in September 2004 for incitement, “insulting” Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination.

The charges against al-Khaiwani stemmed from opinion pieces published in the weekly last summer harshly criticizing 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 before the army killed him in September.

One of the opinion pieces that led to al-Khaiwani’s conviction called President Saleh’s military action against al-Hawthi a “crime” and alleged that Saleh had obtained a “green light” from the United States before launching the attack. A second article condemned the government’s actions as “state terrorism” and warned that “terrorism begets terrorism.” A third piece criticized the army for the “ferocity” of its attack and authorities’ failure to resolve the problem through “dialogue.” The court suspended Al-Shoura for six months, and al-Khaiwani remains in prison.

Since al-Khaiwani’s jailing, at least seven other journalists have been handed criminal convictions, including Abdulkarim Sabra and Abdulqawi al-Qabati, editor and reporter, respectively, of the private weekly Al-Hurriya. The men were each sentenced to two years in prison on December 29, 2004, for allegedly “insulting” Saleh in an article in the newspaper. The court also banned the newspaper for a year. Sabra and al-Qabati have not been jailed yet, according to local journalists, but could be at any moment.

Criminal convictions against journalists in Yemen have continued despite Saleh’s pledge in 2004 to work toward eliminating prison sentences for press offenses. Just last month, Saleh acknowledged during a speech that, “Democracy is the choice of the modern age for all peoples of the world and the rescue ship for political regimes, particularly in our third world.” He added that, “Human rights are tightly connected to democracy and the state of law and order” and “we should remove anything that contradicts them and stand against all forms of discrimination, oppression, and exploitation for the human being and his rights.”

Following the meeting, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said, “Those who embrace democratic values do not put journalists in prison for what they publish. If Yemeni officials are serious about democracy and human rights, they will free Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani immediately, allow suspended papers back on newsstands, and cease their harassment of the media.”

Cooper attended today’s meeting along with CPJ board members Clarence Page and Gene Roberts, CPJ Middle East Program Coordinator Joel Campagna, and CPJ Washington, D.C., Representative Frank Smyth.

Al-Hajjri agreed to pass on CPJ’s concerns to his government and said the al-Khaiwani case “will be looked at with a lot of care. … Hopefully, we’ll see good results soon.”