Abu Hamza and the Islamic Army

The fate of Abu al-Hassan

To execute or not? Yemeni authorities face a dilemma in deciding what to do with Abu al-Hassan, convicted killer, kidnapper and self-styled commander of the "Islamic Army"

4 August, 1999


ONE YEAR - to the day - since President Salih issued a decree introducing the death penalty for hostage taking, an appeal court has upheld the sentences against two convicted kidnappers. But there is still scepticism in Yemen as to whether the sentences will actually be carried out.

Since last August there have been nine serious kidnapping incidents involving foreign captives, and an unknown number of others in which Yemenis have been taken hostage. So far, despite the presidential decree, nobody has been executed and in some cases the kidnappers appear to have gone totally unpunished.

The "Islamic Army" kidnapping, however, was by far the most serious. Sixteen Western tourists were seized in Abyan province on December 28 last year and four of them were killed during a rescue attempt by security forces. Previous kidnaps - at least over the last decade - had all been bloodless.

As a result of this kidnap, 14 men were put on trial (11 of them in their absence), and three were eventually sentenced to death - including Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, the 28-year-old self-styled commander of the "Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan".

Abu al-Hassan's sentence has now been confirmed, along with that of another Yemeni, Abdullah Muhsin Salih al-Junaidi ("Abu Hadhifa"). The third man, a Tunisian teacher who claimed he only acted as interpreter for the kidnappers, had his death sentence commuted to eight years' imprisonment.

The appeal court's ruling was largely predictable, but what will happen next is not.

The Yemeni government may at least feel obliged to make an example of the Abu al-Hassan as the ringleader. It needs to show the world it is taking a firm stand against terrorism and, if there are no executions in this case - the most serious kidnapping case to date - its authority will be diminished. Abu al-Hassan is a charismatic figure, highly respected by his followers, and might - if not executed - be capable of embarrassing the government further. He has high-level contacts and during the kidnap he called several of them on his satellite phone - including, according to one independent witness, President Salih's half-brother, Ali Muhsin. The bill for the phone, which would confirm all the numbers he called, has failed to materialise.

Whether the government will take that course depends partly on its assessment of the risk of a backlash from Abu al-Hassan's tribal and religious supporters. The Islamic Army has already threatened to assassinate the Interior Minister as a reprisal if sentence is carried out. Within hours of the appeal verdict, four people died and dozens were injured in a bomb blast in Sana'a. Although the government has denied a political motive, the timing of the explosion must give strong grounds for suspicion.

In general, the government's record is one of caution in cases with a political, tribal or religious dimension: all the recent executions, so far as can be ascertained, have been for straightforward criminal murders.

After Abu al-Hassan's appeal, the next stage is that any execution must be approved by the president - and this gives the government some room for manoeuvre, or at least delay. There is, for example, the case of Yemen's most famous ex-prisoner, Mansour Rajih, a poet and political writer who was kept for 15 years on death row awaiting presidential confirmation of his execution. He was eventually released in February 1998. From the government's standpoint, continued imprisonment under the threat of execution might be the best option in Abu al-Hassan's case. It would, in effect, turn Abu al-Hassan into a hostage whose life would be spared so long as his supporters behaved themselves.

The other possibility is that relatives of the dead tourists could get the authorities off the hook by requesting clemency and/or accepting blood money, as they are entitled to do in murder cases under Islamic law. However, it appears from first reports of the appeal court's ruling that blood money might be acceptable in addition to execution rather than instead of it. The reason seems to be that the death sentences apply to the act of kidnapping as well as to the murder charges.

Despite these uncertainties, because of the high-profile nature of the case Yemen Gateway's view is that Abu al-Hassan is more likely to be executed than spared.

[Editor's update: abu al-Hassan was eventually executed on 17 October 1999. See list of executions in Yemen]