Obama Asked to Keep a Journalist in Prison in Yemen

During a phone conversation last year with Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, President Obama “expressed concern” over the release of imprisoned journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye. Shaye had been sentenced to five years in prison for his alleged association with terrorist group AQAP.  Saleh was about to release Shaye–in fact Saleh had a pardon drafted and ready to be signed–but Obama’s “concern” halted the Yemeni president from doing do. Shaye remains in jail.

President Obama. Journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye

In his article in The Nation, intrepid investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill questions President Obama’s request to keep Shaye in jail. The article aptly titled Why Is Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen? answers the question itself, starting with December 2009 attacks against Al Qaeda militants in Yemen’s southern Abyan province. “Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda on Thursday, killing at least 34 militants in the broadest attack on the terrorist group here in years, Yemeni officials said.” As printed in the New York Times in 2009.

Scahill writes: “As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.”

When questioned about the al Majala attacks, the U.S continued to deny any involvement: “I would refer you to the Yemeni government for any information on operations against al Qaeda in their country,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, “The Yemen government should be commended for dealing with the Al Qaeda threat in their nation. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threatens the stability of the region and poses an increasing threat to Yemenis and Americans.” Amnesty International released the photos Shaye took and CNN reported the accusations in June of 2010, in a short article titled U.S. Missiles Killed Civilians, Activist Group Says. Shaye was vindicated when a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks confirmed that the Obama administration launched secret missile attacks in al Majala and asked that the Yemeni government take responsibility.

Seven months following the bombings, Scahill reports, Shaye was abducted by Yemeni intelligence agents while out running errands with his friend Kama Sharaf. Scahill writes:

“The agents, according to Sharaf, threatened Shaye and warned him against making further statements on TV. Shaye’s reports on the Majala bombing and his criticism of the US and Yemeni governments, Sharaf said, “pushed the regime to kidnap him. One of the interrogators told him, ‘We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue.’” Eventually, in the middle of the night, Shaye was dumped back onto a street and released.”

Undeterred, Shaye continued to speak by going on Al Jazeera and describing his arrest. “[Shaye] continued to report facts, not for the sake of the Americans or Al Qaeda, but because he believed that what he was reporting was the truth and that it is a journalist’s role to uncover the truth,” Sharaf told Scahill. “He is rare in the journalistic environment in Yemen where 90 percent of journalists write extempore and lack credibility.”

In January 2011, Shaye was convicted of terrorism-related charges, despite being a recognized journalist whose work is often re-quoted by media outlets around the world. “Without Shaye’s reports and interviews we would know much less about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula than we do,” Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University told Scahill. “And if one believes, as I do, that knowledge of the enemy is important to constructing a strategy to defeat them, then his arrest and continued detention has left a hole in our knowledge that has yet to be filled.”

Jeremy Scahill

Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by two years of restricted movement and government surveillance.


“There are strong indications that the charges against [Shaye] are trumped up and that he has been jailed solely for daring to speak out about US collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Pressure from Yemeni tribal leaders, international human rights organizations, and international media organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, resulted in President Saleh drafting a pardon for the release of Shaye. It was awaiting his signature and word of it was leaked in the Yemeni press. “That same day,” [Shaye’s lawyer] says, “the president [Saleh] received a phone call from Obama expressing US concerns over the release of Abdulelah Haider.” Saleh rescinded the pardon.

Read the full Scahill article in the Nation here




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