Death sentence

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 10 September 2004

A militant supporter of al-Qaeda has been sentenced to death and 14 others - among them a former employee in the presidential office - jailed for between three and 10 years following a chaotic trial in Yemen.

The men were convicted on a variety of charges, including the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002, planned attacks against the American, British, French, German and Cuban embassies, plots to assassinate the American ambassador and intelligence officials, and falsification of documents.

The man sentenced to death, Hizam Mujali, was also convicted of killing a Yemeni soldier at a checkpoint. The former presidential employee, Fawaz al-Rabe'ie, and his brother, Abu Baqr, were jailed for 10 years for for attacking a helicopter belonging to the American Hunt Oil company and ordered to pay almost $100,000 for bombing a building belonging to Yemen's civil aviation authority.

The group were said to be linked to Ali al-Harithi, a leading al-Qaeda figure in Yemen who was assassinated by a rocket fired from a CIA drone two years ago.

Though there is little doubt about the men's allegiance - in court, on hearing the verdict, they shouted: "God is greatest, America is the enemy of God, Osama bin Laden is God's beloved" - the conduct of the trial left a lot to be desired. It officially cleared up a large number of crimes, perhaps too conveniently.

Defence lawyers complained that they were not allowed proper access to the evidence against their clients, and several of them - including lawyers appointed by the court - walked out. The relative leniency of the punishments has also caused surprise and speculation, since some of the jailed men could have been sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, in the continuing trial of six men accused of involvement in the attack on USS Cole four years ago, a defence lawyer caused a stir by reading out a letter allegedly written by Yemen's former interior minister, Hussein Mohammed Arab.

The letter asks Yemeni security authorities to give "safe passage to Sheikh Mohammed Omar al-Harazi with three bodyguards without being searched or intercepted". 

It continues: "All security forces are instructed to cooperate with him and facilitate his missions." 

Al-Harazi - also known as Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri - is widely regarded as the mastermind of the attack which killed 17 American sailors and almost sank the USS Cole as it refuelled in Aden harbour.

So far, it is unclear whether the "safe passage" letter is genuine or, if genuine, under what circumstances the minister provided it.

Nashiri/Harazi is the cousin of a suicide bomber who blew up the American embassy in Nairobi in 1998, according to the US. Yemeni sources say he was also organiser of a foiled al-Qaida plot to blow up the US embassy in India in 2001. 

He left Yemen a few days before the attack on USS Cole and disappeared. He was eventually captured in the United Arab Emirates two years later. He is currently held by the US at an undisclosed location, and is being tried in Yemen along with the other five men, in his absence. 

Encouraged by Yemen's contribution to the "war on terror", the US has resumed arms sales, along with loans or grants to assist the purchases. Delivery of spare parts for F-5 fighter jets and C-130 cargo planes to Yemen has already been approved.

Arms sales had been blocked since 1992, as a punishment for Yemen's ambivalent attitude towards the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but the Americans have now decided to consider Yemeni requests on a case-by-case basis.

"It was deemed necessary to support Yemen's active role in the war on terror," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told the Associated Press last week.

Yemeni officials have again claimed imminent victory in their war on followers of Hussein al-Houthi, a Zaidi cleric [see previous article]. 

Although information is sparse, some sources say the death toll in the conflict, which began in June, has now reached 400-500 - mainly caused by the army's use of heavy weaponry, including helicopter gunships. Besides civilian casualties, the military have also suffered significant losses. Last week, according to the Saudi daily, Arab News, Brigadier-General Hamid al-Qushaibi - head of the military field operations - was badly wounded by al-Houthi's rebels and flown to hospital with a bullet in his kidney.