by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
Yemen's most famous prisoner, Mansour Rajih, has been released
after 15 years under the shadow of execution. The poet and political writer was arrested
in 1983 following the murder of Sheikh Ahmed al-Sarari. After a trial which is now widely
regarded as flawed, he was sentenced to death.
Mr Rajih's release - and departure for political asylum in
Norway - earlier this month has healed one of the lingering sores from Yemen's
pre-unification era. Along with other members of his family, the poet was a supporter of
the National Democratic Front, a Marxist organisation which waged a guerilla struggle
against President Salih's regime in the northern provinces of Taizz, Ibb and al-Baydah. At
the time, the NDF was backed by the rival Marxist regime in southern Yemen.
Although the murdered sheikh had been a strong supporter
of President Salih, the president always seemed reluctant to confirm the death sentence on
Mr Rajih. The poet was eventually adopted as a prisoner of conscience by various human
rights organisations and several European governments lobbied on his behalf. For a long
time, diplomatic efforts were frustrated by the Yemeni government's claim that it could
not find a suitable legal mechanism to bring about Mr Rajih's release. The impasse was
resolved when Sheikh Sarari's relatives agreed, under intense pressure, to drop their
claim for retribution.
Meanwhile President Salih cut short a state visit to
Indonesia last weekend in order to attend discussions of the Iraq crisis in Abu Dhabi.
During the 1990-91 conflict over Kuwait, Yemen attracted international attention as the
only dissenting member of the UN Security Council - and paid a heavy price. Much of its
foreign aid was cut and about 750,000 Yemeni guest workers were forced to return home from
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. After working hard for several years to restore its
reputation, this time Yemen has been careful not to diverge too far from mainstream
opinion in the international community. Although it has been helped in this by the
position that America's erstwhile allies have adopted, it has also made efforts to appear
constructive. During a visit to Britain late last year President Salih said he had relayed
the Blair government's views to Baghdad.
The Yemeni authorities have also been trying to cool
popular opinion at home, which tends to be strongly in favour of Iraq. Security forces in
Sana'a dispersed what were described as "unlicensed" demonstrations against the
American/British military build-up. But members of the Yemeni parliament criticised Abd
al-Rahman al-Akwa, the Information Minister, for failing to broadcast a statement that
parliament had issued. The statement, which denounced military and political campaigns
against Iraq, was considered to be out of line with the government's foreign policy.
Copyright © Brian Whitaker 1998