by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 10 April
Yemen's marathon treason trial has ended with five defendants
sentenced to death - among them Ali Salim al-Baid, the former vice-president, and Haidar
abu-Bakr al-Attas, the former prime minister. Eight others were sentenced to varying terms
of imprisonment and two were acquitted.
All the accused played a leading role in the 1994 war when
the southern-based Yemen Socialist Party and its allies tried - but failed - to secede
from union with the north.
At a purely judicial level the trial, which dragged on for
well over a year, was a futile and almost surreal ritual. No actual punishments are
expected because all 15, who were tried in their absence, live abroad in Saudi Arabia,
Oman, Britain and Egypt, from where they are unlikely to be extradited.
But there were other considerations. By harmlessly meting
out virtual retribution on a small number of absentees, the state has formally apportioned
blame for the war, thus satisfying important sections of Yemeni opinion (including the
military), while allowing for a general amnesty among those former participants who remain
in the country.
Because of Saudi interest in the southern cause during the
war, the trial also became a factor in Yemen's continuing border dispute with the kingdom.
Possibly for this reason, the government seemed anxious not to turn it into a show trial.
It proceeded at a lethargic pace, with numerous delays and adjournments - the most recent
when the judge apparently became too ill to pass sentence. The official announcement of
the verdicts referred simply to Case No 5 of the Islamic year 1417 in North Sana'a Court.
Since the war, and even during the trial, President Ali
Abdullah Salih has been in regular telephone contact with most of the accused. The
conversations with everyone except al-Baid are said to have been reasonably amicable.
The most intriguing aspect is the relatively light 10-year
suspended sentence on Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri. This may be because he played little part in
events leading up to the war, but it has also aroused speculation about his possible
return to Yemen.
Mr Jifri, regarded as a Saudi protégé, is the only
southern opposition leader to have increased his influence as a result of the war. A
member of a prominent southern family, he spent 20 years in Saudi Arabia during Marxist
rule of the south, and acquired a Saudi passport. He moved to Sana'a after unification in
1990 but found little popular support. In the 1993 parliamentary election his party, the
League of the Sons of Yemen, fielded 87 candidates but won no seats and polled only 16,000
votes throughout the country. With remarkable foresight, he sold his house in the capital
a few months before the war.
He re-emerged in 1994 as "vice-president" of the
short-lived "Democratic Republic of Yemen". His efforts to rally support in Aden
and stave off defeat after the departure of "president" al-Baid won grudging
admiration, even in parts of the north.
Since the war, a stream of carefully-targeted faxes and
press releases from his office in London has hampered the Sana'a government's effort to
improve relations with western countries.
He is said to have set a number of conditions for
returning to Yemen - including a cabinet post. That may be too much to ask, but his future
is likely to be a continuing issue in Yemen's relations with Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile rumours circulated in Sana'a last week that the
prime minister, Faraj bin Ghanim, was on the brink of resigning in a dispute over a
cabinet reshuffle. The rumours were officially denied, though not by Mr Ghanim: he was
away in Geneva, ostensibly for a medical check-up, with no date set for his return.
Copyright © Brian Whitaker 1998