Outspoken journalist sentenced to six-year prison term

New York, June 9, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the six-year jail sentence handed down today against an outspoken Yemeni journalist accused of conspiring with anti-government rebels.

A state security court in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, sentenced Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of an opposition news Web site, to six years in prison for being an alleged member of a cell of anti-government rebels and conspiring to carry out attacks on government forces and civilians. Al-Khaiwani and 14 others were accused of being followers of rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Hawthi, whose family has fought against government forces in northwestern Yemen since 2004. Most of the other defendants received terms up to 10 years in jail and one received the death penalty, according to Hayel Salam, one of al-Khaiwani’s lawyers.

Al-Khaiwani, who was arrested shortly after the verdict was announced, will appeal the verdict, Salam told CPJ.

“From the outset, this case has been about settling scores with a journalist because of his political news coverage,” said CPJ Mideast Program Coordinator Joel Campagna. “We hope that the appellate court will overturn this judgment, which makes a mockery of Yemen’s professed support for democracy and freedom of the press.”

The case against al-Khaiwani has been widely viewed as reprisal for his unrelenting criticism of the government’s fight against the rebels, as well as his writing about government nepotism.

Al-Khaiwani was charged last June. The preliminary evidence against the journalist included photographs of rebels fighting in Saada, an interview and contact with a rebel leader, and news articles, including one written by al-Khaiwani that criticized President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In subsequent court hearings, the court focused on two CDs allegedly given to al-Khaiwani by another convicted member of the al-Hawthi cell, Salam told CPJ. The CDs were said to contain images of the fighting in Saada. The court also cited a monitored phone conversation between al-Khaiwani and a colleague in which the two discussed negotiations between the government and the rebels, Salam said.

In 2004, as editor of Al-Shoura, a Web site and former print weekly affiliated with the Popular Forces Union Party, 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.

A month after al-Khaiwani was charged last June, several gunmen abducted him as he attempted to hail a taxi in Sana’a. The assailants threatened him, beat him, and tried to break his fingers. The gunmen also threatened to kill the journalist and his family if he wrote another word against the president or the country’s national unity, journalists told CPJ.