Leading Yemeni Journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani Arrested
(Arabic, Al-Thawry pdf)
In 2004, prominent Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani wrote from jail, “I believe in democracy, freedom, equality and rights and am willing to suffer for their sake simply because I do not wish my children to suffer dictatorship and I will strive to provide them a better future.”
Al-Khaiwani was released after seven months in jail. He continued to write about topics important to Yemen including corruption, nepotism and civil rights. He faced down a series of governmental harassments, censorship, threats and defamation only to be arrested last week on fabricated terrorism charges.
The politicized arrest of al-Khaiwani, one of Yemen’s most respected activists, is part of a broader governmental campaign to clamp down not only on dissent, but also on information. The government’s increased repression of the media comes in response to growing instability. A five-month rebellion in the North spawned a humanitarian crisis as up to 100,000 civilians in Saada governorate are internal refugees. In the South, protests and demonstrations that began in May are increasing in size and intensity. As hot spots flare across Yemen, the government blocked news Web sites, banned text message news alerts, and refused to grant new newspaper licenses or allow private ownership of broadcast media. Al-Khaiwani’s arrest occurred during the sixth week of a sit-in by journalists demanding media freedom.
The arrest of the internationally renowned reformist sent shock waves through Yemen and the international community. On the day of his arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern that “al-Khaiwani is being punished for his outspokenness.” Reporters Without Borders urged the Yemeni government to release the journalist.
Both the fact and manner of the arrest are shocking. Al-Khaiwani was taken into custody by counter-terrorism forces who posed as electrical workers to gain entry to his home. They were authorized to use deadly force if he resisted arrest. Once inside his home, they struck al-Khaiwani’s seven-year-old daughter so hard that she fell into unconsciousness. The officers beat the journalist bloody with the butts of their guns. He was transported to jail bleeding and less than fully clothed, a humiliation considering the very conservative nature of Yemeni society.
Once in jail, al-Khaiwani was denied medical treatment for the multiple injuries he sustained during the arrest. He was denied access to his lawyer. Although a crowd of colleagues and supporters immediately gathered outside the jail, al-Khaiwani is denied visitors, reportedly on orders of Interior Minister Rashad al-Alimi. His wife was allowed to visit, authorities said; however, there is no female security guard available to search her, so that visit was denied as well. Al-Khaiwani has not seen a judge, and no charges have been brought. However, the Penal Court determined that he would be imprisoned for a month while authorities consider charges.
The governmental media launched a smear campaign against the activist, reporting that al-Khaiwani “supports terrorism,” the evidence of which reportedly consists of CD’s containing data about civilian deaths in the northern rebellion and other public information. It is widely understood that al-Khaiwani’s arrest is retaliation for his writings, the latest of which was to be an article titled “The Goat That Became a Pharaoh.”
Al-Khaiwani is a modern hero for enduring the abuse leveled at him by the Yemeni government. In May 2004, al-Khaiwani, then editor of Al-Shoura weekly newspaper, discussed death threats he had received after publishing a series of articles on corruption and dynastic political succession in Yemen. “We will continue our fight against corrupt crooks at the power center who are annoyed by the reports that have touched their interests,” he told the Yemen Times.
Later in 2004, when al-Khaiwani was imprisoned for insulting the president, he refused to purchase his freedom with a promise to stop writing. He was sentenced to a year in jail in a highly irregular judicial procedure related to nine opinion articles published by Al-Shoura, which lost it license for six months.
During the seven months al-Khaiwani spent in jail as a prisoner of opinion, he was beaten. He had his jaw broken. He wrote, “Democracy and freedom are not granted by a leader or a regime, it is a world wide human achievement of all the free people on earth.” He was pardoned by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in March 2005. When Al-Shoura was allowed to resume publishing in April, “In an unexpected move, the paper tackled a number of issues, including Saada events, and the country’s dynastic rule,” the opposition Al-Shawa remarked.
In May 2005, in response to al-Khaiwani’s unbowed editorial tone, armed men stormed the offices of Al-Shoura and began to publish the paper with a pro-government line in a tactic known as “cloning.” A statement by the Civil Society Coalition noted the “atmosphere of terror and violence dominating this political period against the opposition and opinions.” That atmosphere only became more repressive as documented by the Yemeni organization Women Journalists Without Chains, (previously known as Female Journalists Without Borders until a regime clone began operating with the same name). The report detailed over 200 violations of press freedom in 2006.
Throughout 2005 and into 2006, al-Khaiwani continued to publish an authentic version of Al-Shoura electronically. The Web site’s “popularity skyrocketed due to his outspoken opinion articles and investigative reports unveiling corruption at very high levels in the regime, involving both current and previous officials,” according to the Yemen Times.
The Al-Shoura Web site, among others, was blocked preceding Yemen’s September presidential elections. In November 2006, al-Khaiwani was prohibited from leaving Yemen to attend an International Red Cross conference in Morocco. In December 2006, he wrote to the United Nations about the conditions of journalists in Yemen. “The State hunts us, abuses our rights, and restrict our freedom of expressions,” he said in a letter co-authored with other leading journalists. “We were subjected to abduction, forcible disappearance, and illegal and unconstitutional arrests. We are deprived of our livelihood sources because we criticize corruption and the military regime that has been grasping power for 28 years.” The United Nations failed to respond.
In February 2007, al-Khaiwani was forcibly brought to court on a matter related to a published article. “I wished the court showed a similar zest in Anisah Al-Shuabi’s case or doing justice to Raash villagers,” he noted, referring to a rape victim and an entire village that was displaced at the whim of a sheik.
With the Saada war raging, Al-Shoura’s Web site was again blocked in February. Al-Khaiwani issued a statement that said the Yemeni government was targeting Al-Shoura, “because we are criticizing corruption, the prejudices of rights and freedoms, and our continuing need for political and cultural reforms and good governance.” It is a bizarre irony that the latest victim in the war on terror is this dedicated democracy activist in Yemen who has fought for freedom for years. That war can never be won until the United States begins to live up to its rhetoric and stated policy of supporting reform and the many courageous reformers in the Middle East.