'I Am Still a Prisoner': Yemeni Journalist Jailed at Obama's Request Now Under House Arrest


On July 23 2012, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist imprisoned since 2010 at the request of President Barack Obama, was finally released from Yemeni State Prison.

Shaye was a well-respected Yemeni journalist, known in Yemen for his investigative journalism and breaking stories. He was recognized in the U.S. for conducting interviews with the US-born Islamic cleric, Anwar Al Awlaki, and with leaders of al Qaeda in Yemen, and often provided news coverage for US media outlets such as the Washington Post and ABC News.  He later came to the spotlight in December 2009 after reporting on a military offensive that the Yemeni government claimed had been carried out against Al Qaeda militants but had actually been carried out by the United States. Shaye went to the site that the Yemeni forces claimed to be a “suspected al Qaeda training camp” in Al Majalah village in southern Yemen, only to discover dozens of dead bodies and the remnants of missiles and cluster bombs, weapons the Yemeni government didn’t have. To Shaye, things were not adding up.

With the help of Amnesty International, Abdulelah Haider Shaye investigated the attack and discovered that U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs made by General Dynamics were used. He revealed the pictures of the missiles along with the names of those who died. He discovered that among the so-called militants were 14 women—five of whom were pregnant—and 21 children, the youngest being two-years-old.

The government interrogated, beat and threatened Shaye for reporting about the innocent deaths and the U.S. involvement in the Al Majalah massacre. “We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue,” one interrogator told him. But he knew the truth and refused to let the perpetrators get away with cold-blood murder.

A month later, Yemeni security forces stormed into Shaye’s house, beat him, arrested him and threw him into solitary confinement where he stayed for 34 days without access to a lawyer. He appeared before a court in September 2010 but was not charged until October. He was convicted in January 2011 with a five-year sentence and two years house arrest . Shaye was convicted of “recruiting al Qaeda members and being a propagandist for Anwar Al Awlaki”, despite no evidence ever presented in any of the trials. Shaye refused to present a defense as a way to protest the court.  “I don’t recognize the legitimacy of this court,” he told the judge.

People Power, Movement Building and Deep Change

After his conviction, popular resistance against Shaye’s verdict grew throughout Yemen and within a month of his sentencing, then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he was going to pardon the journalist. But Shaye was never released due to a direct intervention by Constitutional Law Professor Noble Peace Prize winner President Obama.  

Two years and five months later, Shaye was given another presidential pardon, this time by appointed President Abdul Mansour Hadi, (appointed by the GCC initiative with the support of the U.S. & E.U. through a one-man election.).

The movement for Shaye’s release is a direct result of years of organizing. Human rights lawyers, media organizations, community organizers, activists and journalists rallied around his case immediately after his verdict in January 2011. Activists armed with photos, banners and signs, wheat pasted the city, held protests, vigils, sit-ins, and hunger strikes to show solidarity with Shaye.

On May 6, 2013, President Hadi promised to release Shaye before the start of Ramadan. On July 24, 2013, Hadi pardoned Shaye with the condition that he remain under house arrest for two years with full security watching his every move. After he finishes two years of house arrest, a travel ban will be imposed for another three years.

Abdulelah Haider Shaye, wrongfully incarcerated for three years and 8 days, is now in the comfort of his home, sitting with his family, eating, laughing and crying together. But he is still not a free man. “Although I have been released, in the eyes of the political and national security agencies I am still a threat. Therefore, I am still a prisoner and I am not free,” Shaye told his lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, after his release.

Despite these onerous conditions, many Yemenis began hailing Hadi’s actions and started, rightfully so, celebrating Shaye’s release.

While Shaye’s release is a huge victory and a step in the right direction for press freedom, many questions remain: Why did the Yemeni government arrest Shaye in the first place? Can we really applaud President Hadi for releasing Shaye under such harsh conditions, justifying his arrest and treating him as though he is a criminal despite a total absence of due process? Was Shaye’s release a tactic for President Hadi and President Obama to appease the popular global resistance against the drone wars?

The White House response to Shaye’s release was atrocious. "We are concerned and disappointed by the early release of Abdulelah al-Shai, who was sentenced by a Yemeni court to five years in prison for his involvement with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the National Security Council. On Democracy Now!, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill commented on the White House statement by saying: “Let that sink in. President Obama is concerned and disappointed over a Yemeni journalist who was imprisoned in Yemen and released in Yemen.”

On August 1, President Hadi is scheduled to meet President Obama at the White House to discuss the Yemen-US counter-terrorism partnership (the U.S. drone program is expected to be discussed), and the transfer of the 56 Yemeni prisoners held in Guantanamo that have been cleared for release and designated for transfer. It would be nice if someone in the press corps questioned these leaders about imprisoning a journalist for exposing US crimes in Yemen and about US drone strikes that continue to kill innocent Yemenis. That would be a good way to honor Abdulelah Haider Shaye.

One thing remains certain: what happens when you try to silence an important issue? Well, as the Yemeni and U.S. Government found out last Tuesday, people will be there to make some noise. Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a 35 year old journalist with a conscious--and because he has a conscious has been charged with “aiding a terrorist group.” Shaye is in good spirits, celebrating life and clinging on to hope and optimism that with continuous collective efforts, truth and freedom will never be silenced.

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