The Abyan kidnap trial
1. The trial begins
2. The accused
The first session
THE TRIAL opened on January 13, 1999, with only three of the 14 defendants in court (the others were being tried in their absence).
Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar admitted membership of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan and defended the kidnapping. He said the aim had been to press for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq and the establishment of Islamic law in Yemen.
He said: "I am not guilty. I am a mujahid for God. We sacrifice ourselves for God.''
Nineteen-year-old Sa'ad Atif denied involvement in the Islamic Army or the kidnapping. He said he had been arrested on December 23, five days before the tourists were kidnapped.
His brother, Ahmad Atif, also denied involvement in the Islamic Army or the kidnapping. He said he was arrested when he went to look for Sa'ad.
The court then adjourned until after Ramadan.
"I was just an interpreter"
On January 27, two more defendants were arrested (along with four defendants in the Aden "bomb plot" trial), and they appeared in court at the second session, on February 6.
One of them, Abdullah Muhsin Salih al-Junaidi ("Abu Hadhifa") admitted membership of the Islamic Army and kidnapping the tourists, but denied killing them.
The other new defendant, Hussein Muhammad Salih ("Abu Huraira"), a Tunisian, told the court: "I was not a participant in the kidnapping, either in thought or deed." He said his role was as an interpreter. He had not known about the plan until the morning of the kidnapping. He had not carried any weapons.
Abu al-Hassan ridiculed the judge and asked to be tried in an Islamic court by two radical ulama' from the Islah party (Daylami and Zindani). He told the court: "We fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya and we will continue our struggle until the establishment of an Islamic state in Yemen."
Hostages were "ordered goods"
The trial resumed on February 8, when four Yemeni drivers, who had been accompanying the tourists, gave evidence. In general, their accounts tallied with those given by the surviving western tourists after their rescue.
The drivers said the kidnappers had opened fire on the security forces and had used the hostages as human shields during the rescue attempt by the army. But it was still unclear exactly how four of the tourists had died.
Abu al-Hassan said he accepted 98% of what the first witness had said, but he objected to the Islamic Army being described as a gang. "We are an Islamic organisation seeking jihad and we want to establish an Islamic state."
One driver spoke about phone calls made by Abu al-Hassan during the kidnapping. He told of a call to Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (President Salih's half-brother) and another to someone called "Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Jaza'iri".
The witness said that in an earlier phone call the kidnap leader described his hostages as ordered goods: "We've got the goods that were ordered - 1,600 cartons marked 'British' and 'American'."
"We have contacts at a very high level"
At the next session, on February 11, the witnesses were a soldier who had been injured during the rescue attempt and an elderly sheikh who had attempted to mediate.
The soldier said the kidnappers had opened fire first, but he did not see them kill any of the hostages.
The sheikh said the kidnappers had refused to negotiate with local officials. They told him: "We have contacts at a very high level."
On February 15, Abu al-Hassan admitted giving orders to kill the hostages in the event of a rescue operation. He said his instruction was "to kill only the men, and not the women, if Yemeni police intervened to free the hostages." However, he denied any connection with Abu Hamza al-Masri, the London-based leader of Supporters of Shariah.
Meanwhile, the judge decided that some of the prosecution evidence was inadmissible because a proper report had not been made when Abu al-Hassan's house was searched.
"If we had 10 bin Ladens they would liberate the people"
On February 18, various items allegedly found in Abu al-Hassan's house at Marakha in Shabwa province were presented in court. They included 10 video cassettes covering Islam, Algeria and the New World Order, and one which vilified (according to the prosecution) some members of the Yemeni parliament. Abu al-Hassan denied any connection with the videos.
There were also a number of printed lectures about battles and some pictures of Usama bin Laden. Regarding the pictures, Abu al-Hassan said: "Yes, three times yes. If we had 10 [bin Ladens] in the Muslim world they would liberate the people. We call on the mujahideen to gather round him."
He was asked about two envelopes sent by Abu Hamza from London which were allegedly found in his house. He said he did not deny a connection with "Dr" Mustapha Kamil [Abu Hamza] but the letters had never reached him.
Abu al-Hassan told the court that his group, the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, had been planning bombing attacks on Americans and Britons in Aden, to follow after the kidnapping. They were to be carried out by himself, Ali al-Khadr and Usama. "Our plan was to go to Aden after the kidnapping to liquidate Americans in one of the city's hotels and attack a church … Two religions cannot unite and a church bell cannot sound in the Arabian peninsula."
Asked about his connection with Abu Hamza, he said he had wanted to issue a communique to be distributed to the news agencies. Ali al-Khadr had undertaken to send it to London.
Another defendant, Abdullah al-Junaidi, was asked how Abu al-Hassan had acquired the satellite telephone. He said it was from London and had been brought by a man known as Abu Ma'adh (Muhsin Ghailan), who said he was from Gibraltar.
"He left the Islamic Army four or five months ago"
As the seventh session opened on February 21, the prosecution sought to introduce new evidence in the form of a forensic expert's report. Among other things, this indicated that all the dead hostages had been shot from behind. The defence complained that this had arrived late and suggested that the expert should be called to answer questions about it.
Four witnesses then appeared on behalf of the second defendant, Ahmad Atif, to testify that he had left the Islamic Army before the kidnapping and had been elsewhere on the day of the crime.
WITNESS 1: Salih Nasser Bala’idi, aged 27, teacher from Shabwa. No family relationship with the accused.
The witness told the court: "I know Ahmad Muhammad Atif [indicating him] … we pray together and I know that he left the Islamic Army about four or five months ago."
Q. What is your relationship with the accused?
Q. When did you know that the accused had left the Islamic Army of Aden and how did you know it?
A. The groups are well-known in our district. Islahis call people to Islah, Salafis call people to Salafism, and we know everyone who joins them and leaves them.
Q. Which group are you from?
[Objections from accused and defence; judge rules the question out of order.]
Q. Were you present when the suspect left [the Islamic army]?
A. We told him sincerely that some of the 'ulama do not encourage jihad in Yemen. We advised him to go to Sheikh Muhammad al-Amam … He left [the army] after the sheikh's fatwa satisfied him.
Q. Did a meeting take place between you and the Jihad organisation?
[Judge rules the question out of order.]
WITNESS 2: Abu Bakr Muhammad Ali, aged 25, teacher from Shabwa.
The witness told the court that Ahmad Atif was in the Islamic Army until about four or five months before the kidnapping.
Q. How do you know that the suspect left the Islamic Army of Aden?
A. Because we come from the same village and attend the same mosque, and from time to time we have discussions and we were asking him to join the Yemeni Congregation for Reform [the Islah party].
Q. Do you have an Islah membership card?
A. Yes, here it is.
Q. Did you see the suspect hand in his resignation in front of you?
A. I know that he left because he used to urge us to join him, but then he announced that he had resigned from the Islamic Army of Aden - though he didn’t show me any piece of paper.
Abu al-Hassan: "I don’t receive any resignations. If someone comes to me and says he’s with me, I say, 'Welcome'. If he says he doesn’t want me, I say 'Goodbye'."
Q. What is your family relationship with the suspect?
A. There’s none … we’re from the same tribe.
WITNESS 3: Ahmad A’ud Salih al-Madahji, aged 29, teacher living in Shabwa.
The witness told the court how he had worked to persuade the accused that violence only leads to violence, and that violence is of no service to Islam.
Q. How are you sure that the accused left the Islamic Army?
Judge: "He’s answered that already."
Q. What’s your family relationship with the suspect?
A. There isn’t one.
Q. Do you know that he really gave his resignation to the Islamic Army?
WITNESS 4: Muhammad Ali al-Tahas, teacher living in Rada’a.
The witness said that on December 28 Ahmad Atif had been in Rada'a (which, if true, meant that he could not have taken part in the initial stages of the kidnapping). The witness said he received a phone call from someone in Shabwa wanting to speak to Ahmad. The witness fetched him to the phone … After half an hour the phone rang again. "I don't know what he told him but I saw his face change. I asked him what was the matter and he said his brother had been arrested. I asked him why, and he said he didn't know. After that he went from my house to Adil's house. After half an hour he came to me and asked for 3,000 riyals so that he could go back. I gave it to him and he left my house about 11 o'clock in the morning."
Q. On December 28 you received a phone call - from where to where?
A. From Shabwa to Rada’a.
Q. Approximately what time did you receive the first call?
A. About half past ten.
Q. What time did Ahmad leave?
A. About 12 o'clock.
Q. When did the call come and who called you?
A. Half past ten, from his brother Fahd.
During the session Abu al-Hassan gave a soldier money and sent him out to buy mineral water for everyone in court. The judge and prosecution declined to drink it.
On February 28 the court turned its attention to the nine defendants who are still at large. The judge asked if an order for them to appear in court had been published in the press, as required by the law. The prosecution replied that it had been published in al-Thawra newspaper on January 25. The court then ordered that lawyers be appointed to represent the absentees.