Yemen: Shaye commences hunger strike
The pardoned journalist has been imprisoned for one year at the request of the US administration. Iona Craig reports
14 Feb 12

Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye The pardoned journalist has been imprisoned for one year at the request of the US administration. Iona Craig reports

Yemeni journalist Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye, has gone on hunger strike in protest at his continued proxy detention by the United States.

A demonstration, held outside the US embassy in Sana’a on Saturday (11 February), marked a year since President Barack Obama’s intervention, which overturned a Yemeni presidential pardon granted to the journalist in February 2011.

An employee of Yemen’s state news agency, Saba, Shaye was sentenced to five years behind bars in January last year after being convicted of being the “media man” for Al-Qaeda. The 34 year-old journalist was found guilty of several charges, including “participating in an armed gang and having links with Al-Qaeda” [Shaye specialised as a terrorism and al-Qaeda expert, conducting an exclusive interview with Anwar al-Awlaki for Al-Jazeera in 2009].

Shaye was convinced that the motive for his incarceration lay behind his accusations in 2010 that the US was responsible for killing 55 people — including 21 children — along with 14 alleged al-Qaeda members, in an attack in the province of Abyan in December 2009.

In the first hearing of his trial in October 2010, he shouted to the judge through the caged wall that separated him from the packed courtroom:

When they hid murderers of children and women in Abyan, when I revealed the locations and camps of nomads and civilians in Abyan, Shabwa and Arhab, when they were going to be hit by cruise missiles, it was on that day they decided to arrest me.

Similar revelations over civilian casualties in US drone strikes in Pakistan, published by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Sunday Times, on February 5, drew accusations last week from an anonymous “senior American counterterrorism official” that the Bureau was “helping al-Qaeda”.

Wikileaks cables published in December 2010 after the conclusion of Shaye’s trial confirmed the journalist’s assertion of US responsibility for the Abyan attacks. Recording a meeting in the aftermath of the 2009 bombings, Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was quoted in the leaked diplomatic cables telling the then head of US central command, General David Petraeus: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

Days after Shaye was sentenced in January last year, President Saleh, as one of several concessions offered to appease anti-government protesters, granted the journalist a presidential pardon. But due to direct intervention by Obama, Shaye never walked free. In a phone call to his Yemeni counterpart on 2 February, the US president expressed his “concern” over the planned release. Shaye remained in jail.

Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists are amongst several organisations that have highlighted concerns over the motive behind Shaye’s original conviction.

“There are strong indications that the charges against Abdul-Elah Haidar 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 Amnesty International’s Philip Luther in a statement last year.

Demonstrators in Sana’a on Saturday echoed that sentiment: “Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye:  journalist not a terrorist…his only weapon is a pen” read the banners.

The Yemeni Journalist’s Syndicate, whose requests to visit Shaye have been denied by Yemeni officials, presented a letter on Saturday signed by 65 journalists addressed to Vice-President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Yemen’s head of Political Security, demanding the “immediate release of Abdul-Elah, a prisoner of conscience.”

Despite repeated statements by Yemeni human rights organisation HOOD that Shaye’s health has deteriorated during his time in prison, the journalist began a hunger strike yesterday. In his first appearance in court back in September 2010 he showed bruises and obvious signs of weight loss, and claimed he had been tortured during interrogation by Yemen’s political security.

Shaye’s continued detention at the behest of the US president has gone largely unreported by the English-speaking press. A year on from Washington’s interference in his case the International Federation of Journalists announced last week it had written a letter to Hilary Clinton “to demand that the administration lift its objection to the release of Shaye.” With the US maintaining its insistence on his incarceration, Shaye faces a further four years behind bars.

Iona Craig is a freelance journalist based in Sana’a. She tweets at @ionacraig 

By Iona Craig

Iona Craig is a freelance journalist based in Sana’a, Yemen and The Times of London Yemen Correspondent. She also writes for USA Today, The Sunday Times and regularly contributes to The National (UAE) and Index on Censorship.