26 January 2011

Authorities release journalists for fear of Tunisia-style unrest

Protesters hold up posters of journalist and activist Tawakul Karman during a protest outside the Attorney General's office in Sana'a on 23 January
Protesters hold up posters of journalist and activist Tawakul Karman during a protest outside the Attorney General's office in Sana'a on 23 January
Reuters/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi

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In the face of angry protesters and the potential for a Tunisia-style uprising, the Yemeni authorities suddenly released a number of journalists and human rights activists arrested over the weekend, report the Arabic Network for Human Right Information (ANHRI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Like Algeria, Egypt and others inspired by the Tunisian unrest, Yemenis have been taking to the streets over the past few weeks to challenge the 32-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Parliament recently announced that it is considering loosening the rules on presidential term limits, sparking concerns among the opposition that Saleh might try to appoint himself president for life.

On 23 January, the head of Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) and an apparent leader of the protests, Tawakul Karman, was seized by plain-clothed police and taken to jail, say the IFEX members. Charged with "inciting disorder and chaos" and organising unauthorised demonstrations and marches, Karman was freed 30 hours later on condition that she not violate "public order and the law" again, says RSF.

During her detention, thousands of Yemenis took part in a sit-in outside the public prosecutor's office and demanded her release, as well as that of other protesters, reports RSF.

Hours after being freed, Karman returned to the demonstrations and vowed to continue fighting to topple Saleh. "We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis," she said to a crowd of around 1,000 people on 24 January, referring to the uprising which ousted Tunisian president Zine al Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month.

Aqil Al-Halali, a correspondent for the United Arab Emirates newspaper "Al-Ittihad", was briefly arrested and questioned on 24 January for covering a march in support of Karman in Sana'a, says RSF.

Besides the releases, Saleh has reportedly been offering many concessions to avoid a Jasmine Revolution, say local news reports, from slashing income taxes in half to instructing his government to control prices.

In a separate case, well-known Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Hider Shaea was sentenced to five years for his connections to al-Qaeda, report ANHRI, RSF, IFJ and other IFEX members.

Shaea, who frequently appeared on Al-Jazeera as a commentator, was detained on 16 August 2010, when a group of soldiers stormed his family house in Sana'a and confiscated his notes and computer. He had been kept in solitary confinement in an intelligence agency detention centre in Sana'a since his arrest.

Having developed expertise on Islamist groups including al-Qaeda during his career, he was found guilty of "belonging to an illegal armed organisation" and "recruiting young people, including foreigners, to the organisation by communicating with them via the Internet," report the members. The court also ruled that after his release Shaea would be banned from leaving Sana'a for two years.

According to news reports, President Saleh has become a key U.S. ally since Yemen became a launching pad for attacks on the West from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (al-Qaeda's local wing in Yemen). But despite winning elections in 1999 and 2006, Saleh is seen by many Yemenis as the leader of a corrupt government and a puppet of U.S. counter-terrorism.

Shaea refused to appeal, accusing the courts of colluding with security forces.

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