by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 28 June, 2002
HAS begun in Yemen on installing an electronic
surveillance system intended to prevent al-Qaeda suspects from
entering or leaving the country.
Equipped with computers and
cameras, it will monitor everyone passing through the official
entry points as well as other "strategic" locations. The
system will be run from a central control room in the capital,
Sana'a, where a joint Yemeni-American team will perform the role
of Big Brother.
This unusually hi-tech approach in
one of the world's poorest countries was prompted by the
long-standing ties between religious militants in Yemen and
At the end of the Afghan war
against the Soviet Union, large numbers of unemployed mujahideen -
"Arab Afghans" as they were known - moved to Yemen.
There are fears of a similar exodus to Yemen as result of the
overthrow of the Taliban.
Earlier this month, American
immigration and customs officials were given special instructions
to search the belongings of all Yemeni citizens entering or
leaving the United States. In particular, they were told to look
out for large sums of cash, night vision goggles and Thermos
flasks (which they must "under no circumstances" attempt
Not surprisingly, the move was
seen in Yemen as discriminatory - though many simply dismissed it
as an anti-American rumour of the kind that circulates in Yemen
occasionally. American officials, however, have confirmed that it
According to CBS News, the new
policy resulted from a raid on a flat in the United States that
had been occupied by Yemenis. Dozens of Thermos flasks were
reportedly found there, some fitted with batteries and wire, as if
they were being made into bombs.
Last week the Yemeni authorities
arrested Sheikh Amin al-Okeimi, a member of parliament who has
been mediating between the government and tribes over the
surrender of two al-Qaeda suspects.
The suspects, Qaed Salim Sunian
al-Harethi and Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, have been in hiding for
more than six months. Last December, an attempt to arrest them at
the behest of the United States led to a battle near Marib in
which more than 20 soldiers and tribesmen died.
Sheikh Okeimi, a tribal leader
from al-Jawf province who is also a member of the opposition Islah
party, previously negotiated the release of two Germans who had
been kidnapped in al-Jawf.
It is unclear whether his arrest
was connected with the current mediation efforts. One report
suggested it was the result of a clash between the sheikh's
bodyguards and security forces.
There is now growing concern in
Yemen about the length of time that suspected militants have been
held without trial. Earlier this month a committee - comprising
members of parliament, lawyers, journalists and human rights
activists - was established to protect their rights.
It aims to represent all those
detained, either in Yemen or in Guantanamo Bay, and is attempting
to contact their relatives.
The number of Yemenis held is
still uncertain. Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, parliamentary speaker
and head of the Islah party, claimed last month that
"hundreds or maybe thousands" were detained in Yemen.
On May 30, the official Saba news
agency reported that Yemen was holding 85 people suspected of
having links to al-Qaeda. A shadowy group called
"Sympathisers of al-Qaeda" says the number is 173 and
has claimed responsibility for several small bombings which it
says are aimed at securing their release.
Although the United States does
not give details of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Yemeni officials
have been allowed to interview 70 of their citizens held there.
Earlier this month there were
reports that Pakistani forces had arrested a further 28 Yemenis
near the Afghan border and had handed at least 16 of them to the