Yemeni security forces fire on newspaper offices

New York, May 13, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns a raid today by Yemeni security forces on the Aden compound of the country’s most popular independent newspaper. One passerby was killed. 

Just before noon, a group of security forces clashed with guards at the offices of Al-Ayyam, firing tear gas and bullets and wounding at least two guards and killing the passerby, according to local and international news reports. The raid is the latest development in a series of attacks against Al-Ayyam and other independent publications and journalists in Yemen in recent weeks.

Bashraheel Bashraheel, general manager of Al-Ayyam, told CPJ that the firefight lasted for about an hour and that the wounded guards were taken to the city’s main hospital. He said he is concerned for their safety and fears they will be arrested.

Abdullah Qayran, chief of security in Aden, told the Yemen News Web site that he sent a group of riot police to “execute a judicial order for [the editor-in chief] to appear in a court of law…but the guards opened fire on security [personnel].” Bashraheel denied that claim and said security forces attacked the compound, which also contains the homes of some of the staff, from multiple directions.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violent storming of Al-Ayyam,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The Yemeni government has done all it can to close down Al-Ayyam and has finally resorted to a physical attack. We call on the president to halt this campaign against the newspaper.”

Editor-in-chief Hisham Bashraheel, his son Hani Bashraheel, and another Al-Ayyam staffer were summoned last week by the Sana’a prosecutor’s office to answer accusations of provoking one of the newspaper’s guards to kill an assailant in February 2008. The complaint was filed by the lawyer who represents the killed assailant’s family.

The case stems from an incident on February 12, 2008, when a group of gunmen attacked Al-Ayyam‘s compound in Sana’a in an attempt to take over the building, Bashraheel’s lawyers told CPJ. A military police officer claimed he owned the land on which the compound stood. Hisham Bashraheel, the paper’s general manager, bought the plot of land in 1979, he told CPJ.

The summons for Hisham Bashraheel violates Yemeni law, which states that citizens are to appear before the prosecutor in the town where they reside, the lawyer said. Although Bashraheel lives in Aden, he was summoned to appear before the Sana’a prosecutor, 225 miles (360 kilometers) north of Aden.

Al-Ayyam and at least seven other independent newspapers have been suspended by the government on accusations of harming national unity and spreading hatred among the people of Yemen after they published reports about unrest in the south. Since late April, there have been several clashes between security forces and residents in southern Yemen who accuse the government of discriminating against and neglecting the region.