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Justice in Yemen

Perhaps the most sacred and solemn power granted to a state by its citizens is the power to imprison. It is an action that needs be done with scrupulous care so as not to undermine the rights of all citizens or even one citizen.

There are fundamental requirements necessary to insure justice for the state, the accused and the citizenry at large. One is proper application of the law. Another is the right of the accused to launch a defense. A third is the existence of an impartial judiciary acting in the interest of the nation by neutrally applying the law to a given situation. Justice should be blind to all but the facts and the law.

The case of Yemeni editor Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani sharply demonstrates that the legal system in Yemen is not a mechanism of justice but rather a tool of repression. One cannot examine any aspect of this case and be left unmoved by the plight of Mr. al-Khaiwani and the Yemeni people at large. Both are trapped without recourse by the whims of a few with power.

Al-Khaiwani was arrested for speaking his mind. This is perhaps the most disturbing fact of the entire twisted affair. To the extent that any legal system is a codification of accepted moral and natural rights of man, al-Khaiwani’s imprisonment is an injustice against civilization and all Yemenis.

In criticizing the government and the president himself, Mr. al-Khaiwani was performing the most fundamental task of journalism. It is a task so vital to a healthy state that the First Amendment to the US Constitution provides blanket protection for free speech and the press as a mechanism to encourage criticism. The fact that Mr. al-Khaiwani’s criticisms were leveled at the government and President Saleh is the sign of a functional press corps. The fact that President Saleh imprisoned him for it is the sign of a diseased and corrupted ruling structure. In a perversion of effective governance, the President of Yemen is also the chief judicial officer, and the prosecution has taken on the nature of a personal vendetta.

Mr. al-Khaiwani’s bizarre trial deviated from every accepted norm of legal justice. Among all the absurdities of this case, the ease with which al-Khaiwani was denied both a defense and an appeal is perhaps most worrisome. The hostile behavior of the presiding judge further startled western analysts. The use of the tools of the state as a mechanism of personal aggression is only possible in a dictatorship. This is a fact the West cannot continue to ignore in its relations with Yemen.

It is with great dismay that many western observers have come to see the true face of Yemeni “reform,” Yemeni justice, and President Saleh. On the website for the Yemeni Embassy is a lovely quotation from President Saleh’s calling democracy “the rescue ship of all regimes.” Had we been paying closer attention to Saleh’s ugly actions not his beautiful words, we would have seen that the true face of President Saleh is not the face of a democrat but instead a very frightening face indeed.

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