A journalist finally freed

August 8, 2013

Leela Yellesetty recounts the story of a Yemeni journalist whose reports about U.S. drone strikes on his country led to his torture and incarceration.

ABDULELAH HAIDER Shaye was recently released after spending three years in a Yemeni prison. His crime? Being a journalist.

Shaye's story has received some attention thanks to the excellent reporting of independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, but chances are most Americans have never heard of him due to a virtual blackout of coverage in the mainstream media. This despite the fact that the U.S. government--and President Obama in particular--are directly responsible for keeping him locked up.

Shaye is one of Yemen's most respected journalists. He gained international attention in recent years for his investigations into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and he was also the last journalist to interview radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki before Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Although he used connections to interview al-Qaeda and other extremist leaders, he was no sympathizer. His interviews were hardly uncritical, and he regularly posed hard-hitting questions that gained him the admiration of even staunch supporters of the U.S. war on terror.

Abdulelah Haider Shaye after he was released from prison
Abdulelah Haider Shaye after he was released from prison

"It is difficult to overestimate the importance of his work," Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University who had communicated regularly with Shaye since 2008, told Scahill. "Without Shaye's reports and interviews, we would know much less about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula than we do, 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."

Prior to 2009, Shaye regularly appeared in the international media as an expert on al-Qaeda in the Gulf region. In fact, it was not this reporting that brought him under fire from the Yemeni and U.S. governments, despite later claims.

On December 17, 2009, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of air strikes against an al-Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in the Abyan province in the south of the country. Shaye traveled to Majala in the aftermath to investigate. He found that there was no training camp, just a village, and that the victims of the attack were overwhelmingly civilians, including 14 women and 21 children.

Moreover, Shaye discovered remnants of Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs--which are not part of the Yemeni government's arsenal--stamped with the words "Made in the USA." He circulated pictures of these in the international media. While at the time the U.S. government refused to confirm its involvement in the attacks, later diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks confirmed it.

In one leaked cable, Ali Abdullah Saleh, then president of Yemen, assured then-head of U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus: ""We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."

SEVEN MONTHS later, Shaye was abducted by Yemeni intelligence officials, beaten and interrogated regarding his reporting on U.S. involvement in Majala. "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue," one of the interrogators told him.

Shaye responded by going directly to Al-Jazeera to describe his kidnapping. "Abdulelah 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," Shaye's best friend, Yemeni political cartoonist Kamal Sharaf, told Scahill.

He continued:

[He] is very open-minded and rejects extremism. He was against violence and the killing of innocents in the name of Islam. He was also against killing innocent Muslims with the pretext of fighting terrorism. In his opinion, the war on terror should have been fought culturally, not militarily. He believes using violence will create more violence and encourage the spread of more extremist currents in the region.

One month later, Shaye was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 34 days with no contact with the outside world.

When Shaye's lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, was finally able to visit him, he noticed "that one of Abdulelah's teeth was extracted and another one was broken, in addition to the presence of some scars on his chest. There were a lot scars on his chest. He was psychologically tortured. He had been told that all his friends and family members had left him and that no one had raised his case. He was tortured by false information."

In October 2010, Shaye was hauled into Yemen's state security court--a kangaroo court established by presidential decree--in a cage. The multiple charges leveled against him included joining, recruiting and serving as a propagandist for al-Qaeda as well as inciting members to assassinate President Saleh and his son.

Shaye refused to respond to these charges for which no evidence was offered and instead turned the tables on the court in his statement. As Scahill reports:

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...You notice in the court how they have turned all of my journalistic contributions into accusations. All of my journalistic contributions and quotations to international reporters and news channels have been turned into accusations.

As security guards dragged him away, Shaye yelled, "Yemen, this is a place where, when a young journalist becomes successful, he is viewed with suspicion."

IN JANUARY 2011, the court, which, according to Human Rights Watch, "failed to meet international standards of due process," convicted Shaye on terrorism-related charges and sentenced him to five years in prison.

His imprisonment caused a huge public outcry, and local activists and journalists, including some prominent tribal leaders, began petitioning for his release. A month later, it seemed as though they would be successful when President Saleh agreed to issue a pardon. Yet when news of it leaked to the press--mere hours before the paperwork was to be signed--Saleh suddenly received a personal phone call from Obama.

According to the White House summary of the call, Obama "expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai, who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP." Saleh immediately scrapped the pardon.

After continued public outcry, Yemen's new president, Abdo Rabbo Mansour, agreed to release Shaye on July 23 of this year, though he is to continue serving out the rest of his sentence under house arrest.

While Shaye's release is certainly a cause for celebration, we should not allow his story to be buried. As the witch hunts against whistle-blowers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden drag on, Shaye's story is yet another chilling example of the lengths to which our government will go to suppress the truth about its murderous policies, including the targeting of journalists. We must raise our voices in support of Shaye and all those who bravely speak out against the U.S. war on truth.

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