CPJ troubled by terror charges against outspoken Yemeni editor

New York, July 5, 2007–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by vague terrorism charges brought on Wednesday against the editor of an opposition news Web site. A state security court charged Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, former editor of the online newspaper Al-Shoura, which is affiliated with the Popular Forces Union Party, with conspiring with antigovernment rebels.

Al-Khaiwani and 11 other suspects were accused, among other things, of belonging to a terrorist cell; carrying out terrorist operations; destroying military and security installations; manufacturing explosives; murdering two soldiers; undermining public opinion; and publishing false information about the government’s battle with rebels in the northwestern city of Saada, the journalist’s lawyer, Khaled al-Anesi, told CPJ.

The charges were brought collectively against the suspects, leaving unclear what specific allegations were being made against al-Khaiwani. If convicted, al-Khaiwani and the other men could face the death penalty, al-Anesi said.

The evidence cited against al-Khaiwani thus far appears to be related to his journalistic work, including the possession of widely available news articles and photographs. Al-Anesi said prosecutors have based their case on CDs found in al-Khaiwani’s home containing photographs of the government’s fight against rebels in Saada and the effects on local inhabitants; documents about ceasefire negotiations; and an unpublished article by al-Khaiwani allegedly criticizing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s handling of the conflict. Authorities learned of the CDs when interrogating one of the other suspects, the lawyer said.

Security agents said they also found a fax of an interview that the United Arab Emirates-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Bayan had conducted with rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Hawthi, along with the interview questions stored on al-Khaiwani’s computer, leading them to accuse the journalist of coordinating the story, al-Anesi said. They also found the telephone number of Yehya al-Hawthi, the rebel leader’s brother, stored in al-Khaiwani’s cell phone, the lawyer said.

Al-Hawthi, his family members, and their followers have battled Yemeni government forces in Saada for three years. Fighting was heavy until a ceasefire was reached in June.

Al-Khaiwani was detained on June 20 by Yemeni security agents, who also raided the journalist’s Sana’a home. His case was transferred to a state security court where he was charged on Wednesday.

“We believe these charges are politically motivated,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “If the government has evidence to support Abdel Karim al-Khawaini’s involvement in criminal activity then they should bring it forward, or otherwise release him. Gathering and possessing news and information is not a crime.”

CPJ is also alarmed by the manner in which al-Khaiwani was first detained, and by apparent deficiencies in due process. Security agents who placed him under arrest severely beat him and dragged him to jail barefoot and in his underwear, al-Anesi said, adding that one of the security agents slapped the journalist’s 7-year-old daughter. Al-Khaiwani’s detention was improperly extended in late June without judicial review, according to the lawyer, who said he has been prevented from seeing his client in prison.

Al-Khaiwani has been a harsh critic of government nepotism and the government’s fight against rebels in Saada. In 2004, as editor of the then-print weekly Al-Shoura, al-Khaiwani was sentenced to a year in jail for incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination for his published criticisms of the government’s conduct in the fighting.