chaos as five fight jail
Panic erupts as Britons accused
in Yemen are told they face death sentences. It's an hour before they hear it was all just
a mistake by a translator
Carroll in Aden and Brian Whitaker
Originally published in
The Observer, 31 January 1999
THE WHEELS of Yemeni justice
have enmeshed the five jailed Britons in a machine that grinds slowly forward one moment,
spins dizzily the next, then wheezes to a halt. No one is sure who is in control.
The men's Yemeni and British lawyers were again left in a
bewildered huddle outside Aden's Primary Court Number One yesterday after the judge
abruptly adjourned the trial until tomorrow.
Defence lawyers had still not been given most of the
investigation files and were allowed just a one-hour chat with the men on Thursday. They
had not seen any of the contested confessions.
Prosecutors have flouted promises from Yemen's Prime
Minister, and the judge, for independent doctors to be allowed to examine the men. A
British GP and a Home Office pathologist have flown to Aden but have yet to see the men -
vital if the claims of torture are to seriously challenge their confessions.
The judge, who sits without a jury, overruled pleas for an
adjournment, and ordered the trial to go ahead. The defence had no idea what witnesses
would be called, or what they would say.
Ms Gareth Pierce, the British lawyer campaigning for the
men's release, said in London last night: 'The lawyers out there are not really able to be
lawyers at all. We are worried that we are giving the trial credibility by even being
there.' Privately, the Britons' supporters said yesterday's cross-examinations by Badr
Basunaid, an Aden-based human rights lawyer, were a disaster.
Potentially significant inconsistencies in the testimonies
of two police officers went unchallenged.
At one stage Basunaid walked out in protest at the
unsuccessful adjournment request, but failed to tell his colleagues who remained in court
assuming he had gone to the toilet. The chief prosecutor persuaded him to return.
The amount of evidence in front of the judge - including
rockets, TNT and mines - were not bagged, had not been fingerprinted, and were pawed by
Chaos erupted on Wednesday after the court translator
mistakenly said the suspects faced the death sentence. It was an hour before panicked
relatives were assured 10 years' imprisonment was the maximum penalty.
Meanwhile, the Yemeni government was bombarding the
world's media with its case against the the six men on trial, and three more who were
arrested last week.
It claimed they were sent from Britain by Abu Hamza to be
trained by the guerrilla group known as the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan and then sent to
carry out bombings in Yemen. Apart from Abu Hamza's stepson, the accused include his
natural son and a man who was due to marry into the family.
Four days after the first wave of arrests, Abu Hamza's
Yemeni friend, Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, who leads the Islamic Army, kidnapped 16 tourists,
mostly British, in the hope of exchanging them for the prisoners. Abu Hamza admits
discussing the kidnapping with Abu al-Hassan - and what to do with the hostages - by
satellite telephone barely an hour after it happened.
If the Yemeni version is to be believed, Abu Hamza, a man
with no obvious wealth who claims disability benefit, somehow managed to provide well over
pounds 20,000 for subversion in Yemen.
Yemeni sources say the costs included at least 12 flights
to Yemen, hotel bills, reents for a villa and car, military training, satellite
telephones, satellite positioning devices, a video camera for Abu al-Hassan and other
For good measure, he also, allegedly, supplied spare
British passports 'for use if needed'.
In the 'confessions' of the accused, parts of which were
published in the Yemeni press, Abu Hamza is portrayed as urging his young followers to
support Islamic struggles in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Egypt, 'because they do not follow
the Islamic Way'.
According to these statements, his interest in Yemen
appears to be largely incidental - as a training ground rather than as a theatre of
He is alleged to have told the accused at a meeting in
London: 'After Afghanistan, Yemen is the most suitable country for training mujahideen,
because the nature of Afghanistan resembles that of Yemen.' These statements have since
been retracted by the accused.
Another of the accused, Shahid Butt, said in his statement
that his ambition was to go to Kosovo. He had contacted Abu Hamza, having heard that he
might help help him to get there. Abu Hamza allegedly said his wish would be granted, but
only if he went to Yemen for weapons training first.
Some of the testimony published last week also questions
the motive of Abu al-Hassan of the Islamic Army. The statement of Muhsin Ghailan describes
a meeting in the Finsbury Park mosque where a visitor from Yemen, known as 'Amin', passed
around a recruiting leaflet for the Islamic Army which said its aim was to separate
southern Yemen from the North.