Turmoil and Legal Maneuvering in Yemen
Monday's conviction of eight British and two Algerian Muslims on charges relating to terrorism by a Yemeni court is perhaps more an indication of Yemen's national problems rather than the actual guilt of the convicted Muslim youths. A court in the southern port city of Aden found the young men, aged 17 to 33, guilty of conspiring to bomb an Anglican church, the British consulate and plotting a more widespread scheme to end Western influence in Yemen and establish an Islamic state. Most of the men were first arrested in Yemen on December 24 and have since endured a series of trial postponements and widespread media frenzy over the unprecedented trial of European nationals accused of exporting extremist activity to the Middle East.
But despite the international circus caused by the implication of terrorism being the indirect result of western -- more specifically British -- leniency on terrorist masterminds, the Yemeni trial was fraught with allegations of unfairness.
The defense alleges the defendants did not receive a fair trial. Dr. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of Britain's Muslim Parliament called the trial a "travesty of justice" and a "victory of evil against justice," according to the BBC on August 9. Allegations of injustice sprang from several criminal and judicial incongruities on the part of the prosecution and Yemeni authorities.
The central piece of evidence was a series of signed confessions read to the court by the prosecution in January in which the defendants "admitted" to being part of a terrorist conspiracy involving the British Muslim leader Abu Hamza and the Yemeni Islamist leader Abu al-Hassan. But all the defendants later retracted the confessions, saying they had been procured under torture. The defendants accused authorities of severe physical and sexual abuse and showed in the courtroom bruises, cuts, disorientation and other signs of torture, according to a February 9 report by Mediconern Chairman Dr. Saddaf Alam, who was present in the courtroom on January 24.
The court refused to permit an independent investigation of the allegations until late April when one Dutch doctor and two Yemeni doctors, none of them torture specialists, failed to link four-month old bruises on the defendants to the torture allegations. Meanwhile, a July 7 Amnesty International report on Yemen says security officials continue to practice widespread torture and illegal arrests and detentions.
The defense additionally says that all the defendants except one could not read or understand Arabic and could not therefore be held to the confessions written in Arabic. At least one of the confessions, that of Ghulan Hussein, was dated December 19 - five days before his arrest. The defense lawyers additionally say they were denied ample time to prepare the defense and that they were repeatedly denied access to the defendants, the first meeting not permitted until some three weeks after the arrest.
One of the lawyers, Rashad Yacoob, was allegedly picked up by Yemeni police in February, beaten, slashed with keys and threatened with his life, according to the BBC as well as other sources. In March, the entire defense team walked out of the courtroom in protest, saying the trial has already been decided in favor of a conviction.
While there remains some unanswered questions about the defendants -- such as what a group of youths who say they were in Yemen to learn Arabic were doing with TNT and other weapons -- the clear incongruities in the trial raise questions as to possible motives Yemeni authorities could have for a conviction of the European nationals. The most obvious coincidence was the emergence and near-simultaneous arrest of Abu al-Hassan, leader of the Yemeni militant group, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army.
Just four days after the arrests, on December 28, Abu al-Hassan and his group emerged from the mountains to kidnap 16 western tourists. A botched rescue attempt resulted in the death of four of the hostages and the subsequent trial and conviction on death penalty of Abu al-Hassan. Despite the quick conviction, the event was an international scandal and Western intelligence agencies were critical of Yemeni handling of the case and alleged leniency on extremist groups in Yemen, according to Rory Carrol writing for London's Guardian on June 26.
Yemeni authorities used a tenuous connection between Abu al-Hassan and Abu Hamza, based on a few phone records, and the link between Abu Hamza and the 10 convicted Europeans (one of them is Abu Hamza's son) to imply that the Islamist conflict in Yemen is actually a result of a terrorist network based in London. But the central figure in this equation, Abu Hamza, is considered a rather benign character by British intelligence and there have been no grounds for his arrest despite thorough investigation. According to militant interviewed by Carrol, Hamza "is a crazy man" and only wants "to be known," by exaggerating his role as a mujahideen fighter. Carrol says, "Amid the sound and fury, an awkward fact has been overlooked: Hamza is a nobody - a scary-looking, scary-sounding nobody."
Yemen seems to have capitalized on the hard-line rhetoric of a few Western Muslims (Hamza's web page calls for the overthrow of non-Islamist leaders of the Muslim world) in an attempt to shift the international focus on its domestic instability to one of its most vehement critics: Britain itself.
With the convictions and with the continued presence in Britain of Abu Hamza, the onus is on Britain to explain away the recent wave of terrorist activity in Yemen. For now, Yemen has succeeded in throwing a thin veil over its own domestic instability that is perhaps the real reason for emergence of extremist activity in Yemen.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com