Yemeni newspaper attacked, journalists accused of harming national security

New York, July 31, 2007–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the attack by a group of armed men on a fledgling independent Yemeni newspaper in the capital, Sana’a, on Monday. In a possibly related situation, the Yemeni Ministry of Defense has brought a case against the paper accusing it of harming national security, a charge for which the government is seeking the death penalty for three journalists.

Editor-in-Chief Naif Hassan of the independent weekly Al-Sharaa told CPJ that on Monday morning, several armed men in civilian clothing riding in two army jeeps with military license plates stormed the offices of the paper, demanding to see him. Hassan was not present at the time. The men allegedly threatened to kill him, and made derogatory remarks and threatened the employees of the paper in front of the newspaper’s guard and cleaning lady, Hassan told CPJ. The armed men broke two doors and searched the offices. 

“We are outraged by the attack on Al-Sharaa and the death threats issued against its editor-in-chief, Naif Hassan,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the Yemeni authorities to investigate this incident in light of the serious allegation that the perpetrators were driving military vehicles, and bring those responsible to justice.”

It was unclear what prompted the raid, although journalists at the paper suspect it was connected to a criminal complaint launched by the Yemeni Ministry of Defense earlier this month against the newspaper, which called for its closure and the death penalty for three of its journalists after it published a controversial series of articles on a conflict in the city of Saada, in northwestern Yemen.

Over the last three years, Abdel Malik al-Hawthi, his family members, and their followers have battled Yemeni government forces in Saada. A ceasefire was reached last month.

The Ministry of Defense made its complaint against Al-Sharaa on July 7 after the weekly published the articles in its first issue a month earlier, according to Nabil Subaie, the weekly’s managing editor. The series discussed the volunteer tribesman who fought alongside government forces, as well as corruption and people on both sides of the conflict who would like to see it continue in order to profit from it, Subaie said.

He added that the stories also reported that the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, a terrorist group operating in Yemen, was allegedly fighting alongside the Yemeni army and training volunteers from the tribes to fight in the conflict.

Mohammed Al-Basha, press officer for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C., said the Yemeni government is “aware of the incident.” The only details available about the attack are the ones published by Al-Sharaa, Al-Basha told CPJ, and “the incident has not been confirmed by any government agency.”

He said the editor-in-chief of the paper had notified the Interior Ministry of the case and that there is an ongoing investigation. Al-Basha would not, however, comment on the Ministry of Defense’s case against the weekly.

In an unusual move, the case has been referred to the prosecutor’s office specializing in national security and terrorism cases rather than the press and publication prosecutor’s office. The Ministry of Defense has levied several serious accusations under Article 126 of the Yemeni penal code against Subaie, Hassan, and correspondent Mahmoud Taha, including harming national security and stability, affecting the army’s morale, and publishing military secrets.

Subaie and Hassan have been questioned by the head lawyer in the prosecutor’s office specializing in national security and terrorism cases; Taha was set to appear for questioning today but the session was canceled by the prosecutor. The head prosecutor has not yet officially charged the journalists and transferred their case for trial.

Al-Sharaa is owned by Hassan and Subaie. It launched on June 2.