Witnesses in Al-Ayyam case turn against prosecution

New York, January 10, 2012–Two prosecution witnesses at a trial of banned Yemeni daily Al-Ayyam last month testified in favor of the defense, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today after reviewing court documents.

Al-Ayyam, Yemen’s most popular independent daily until it was shut down by the government in May 2009, faces politicized criminal charges in six separate trials, including “forming an armed gang,” which is being tried at the specialized criminal court in Aden. At a December 26 hearing in that trial — against Editor-in-Chief Hisham Bashraheel, two of his sons, and other staffers, and stemming from the January 2010 attack against Al-Ayyam‘s offices by Yemeni security personnel — two prosecution witnesses testified that the attack on Al-Ayyam was planned and executed by the government, according to local news reports.

One of the witnesses testified that the Central Security Forces were headed by outgoing President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s nephew, Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, according to the court’s transcript. Additional prosecution witnesses failed to appear. The trial, which resumed on Monday, was therefore adjourned again until January 30.

“This trial against Al-Ayyam is a farce designed to keep a critical paper silent,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The prosecution’s own witnesses are either contradicting the prosecution’s claims or failing to testify altogether. It is time for the case to be dismissed.”

The two prosecution witnesses who testified December 26 are Hassan Saeed, deputy general manager of the water works company in Aden and a member of the local council who was involved in the January attack as a mediator, and Taha Hussein Ali Nour, a passerby and a resident of Aden, according to court proceedings reviewed by CPJ.

Saeed said Police Chief Abdallah Qairan told him to cut the water supply to Al-Ayyam’s offices and the Bashraheel family residences, which are housed in the same compound, the court documents show. The second witness, Nour, said he was taken to Qairan’s office and forced to give a false statement that Al-Ayyam had an armed gang and that they were first to fire their weapons.

Al-Ayyam staffers face criminal charges in six separate cases filed in the country’s specialized tribunals. All of the charges are fabricated, CPJ research shows. In a 2010 report, CPJ interviewed dozens of lawyers and journalists who denounced the creation of these specialized tribunals as unconstitutional. Among the many charges, Hisham Bashraheel is accused of “instigating separatism” and “inciting violence.” On January 4, 2010, government forces surrounded Al-Ayyam’s compound using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The editor-in-chief and his two sons were arrested and held for several months.

Prior to its shutdown, Al-Ayyam was the only private daily to distribute countrywide, and was Yemen’s highest-circulation publication. It was regularly critical of the president and his inner circle, and its popularity stemmed in part from willingness to speak out on sensitive issues such as corruption and unrest in the southern region. Al-Ayyam was founded by the influential Bashraheel family in 1958 and run by its members over the ensuing five decades.