CPJ calls for release of U.S. journalist held in Yemen

New York, December 4, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for the immediate release of U.S. freelance journalist Luke Somers, who has been held hostage in Yemen for more than a year. Following a video released on Wednesday that showed the journalist pleading for his life, U.S. government officials issued press releases today publicly acknowledging that Somers was being held by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. CPJ did not previously report the case at the request of the family, who today released a statement about the kidnapping.

“We call for the immediate release of Luke Somers, who went to Yemen to gather and report news about the country at a critical juncture in its history,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, Sherif Mansour. “We hope that Luke, like Peter Theo Curtis who was released by Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria after prolonged captivity, will be able to return home safely to his family soon.”

Somers was kidnapped on a busy street in the middle of Sana’a in September 2013, according to news reports. No group claimed responsibility, but Somers’ colleagues told CPJ at the time that they feared he was taken by Al-Qaeda or would be sold to them.

Somers, who was born in U.K. and is an American citizen, moved to Yemen, where he soon began working as a freelance journalist, according to news reports. His coverage of the 2011 revolution in Yemen and its aftermath has been published by international and local outlets, including Al-Jazeera English, BBC, Foreign Policy, Inter Press Service, National Yemen, New York Times, and Yemen Times. At the time of his kidnapping, he was working in the media office as an English editor and translator for the National Dialogue Conference, a body formed as part of the reconciliation process after former President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in 2012.

In a video released today, Somers’ brother, Jordan, and mother, Paula, appealed for Somers’ release and said they did not know why Somers was targeted or why he is still being held. “Luke is only a photojournalist, and he is not responsible for any actions the U.S. government has taken,” his brother says in the video.

Late Wednesday, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a three-minute video on YouTube publicly acknowledging for the first time that it is holding Somers captive. In the video, which was reviewed by CPJ before being removed from YouTube, Somers says he was kidnapped in Sana’a more than a year ago and says that his life is in danger. His statement is preceded by Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, one of the leaders of the AQAP, saying that Somers “will meet his inevitable fate” unless the U.S. meets the group’s unspecified demands.

Senior U.S. and Yemeni officials told ABC that they did not know what those demands were but speculated they may involve a prisoner exchange.

In the video, Al-Ansi also warns U.S. President Barack Obama from undertaking any more “stupidities” like the attempt last month to rescue Somers in a special forces raid. In a press release today, National Security Council Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said President Obama had authorized a rescue operation in coordination with Yemeni security forces to save Somers and other hostages after receiving reliable intelligence of their location but that Somers was not present when the forces arrived.

According to news reports citing Yemeni officials, eight hostages were freed after a gun battle with the militants but five other hostages, including Somers, were not rescued. The Associated Press, citing Yemeni security officials, reported that the body of another hostage held with Somers, Rashid al-Habshi, was found on Wednesday. The reports said the U.S. government had originally asked the media not to report on U.S. involvement in the raid for fear it would increase the danger that Somers faced.

CPJ documented at least seven other abductions of journalists in 2013, all but one of whom were local Yemeni journalists. Three months before Somers’ kidnapping, Radio Netherlands Worldwide correspondent Judith Spiegel and her husband were kidnapped and held until December. The other six journalists were also eventually released. According to CPJ research, journalists in Yemen are often targeted for kidnapping for the work they published or in hope of getting a ransom or gaining leverage for economic and political concessions.

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed journalist Gregory Johnsen narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt on the same street where Somers was taken, according to an article he wrote about the incident.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sherif Mansour’s comment in the second paragraph of this news alert has been corrected to reflect that the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria released only one American journalist, Peter Theo Curtis, and not two as originally stated. Matt Schrier escaped captivity.