Harmless retribution

Harmless retribution

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 10 April 1998


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