Big brother

Big brother

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 28 June, 2002

WORK 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 Afghanistan.

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 to open).

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 is true.

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 Americans.