Death sentence dilemma

Death sentence dilemma

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,21 May 1999

YEMEN faces a dilemma over the fate of three kidnappers - members of the "Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan" - who were sentenced to death on May 5. The government needs to show the world it is taking a firm stand against terrorism but there are fears of a backlash from the men's tribal and religious supporters if the sentences are carried out. The Islamic Army has already threatened to assassinate the Interior Minister as a reprisal.

All three took part in the kidnap, last December, of 16 western tourists - four of whom died when troops came to rescue them. A fourth defendant was jailed for 20 years but 10 others were acquitted.

Even after the 16-week trial it is still uncertain precisely who killed the four tourists: they were used as human shields and may simply have been hit in crossfire between the kidnappers and security forces. The Islamic Army's leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, admitted in court that he gave instructions to kill male hostages if the Yemeni troops opened fire - but two of the dead were women.

All the convicted kidnappers have now appealed, so the authorities will be spared the need for an immediate decision. Relatives of the victims could get the authorities off the hook if they request clemency, as they are entitled to do in murder cases under Islamic law. But it is not yet clear whether the death sentences apply only to the killing of four of the hostages, or whether they apply also to act of kidnapping - in which case the clemency rule might not operate.

Last August, amid a spate of kidnappings, President Ali Abdullah Salih issued a decree introducing the death penalty in Yemen for hostage taking. If there are no executions in this case - the first kidnapping for years in which hostages have died - the government's authority will be diminished.

They may therefore feel obliged to make an example of the leader, Abu al-Hassan, but placate tribal opinion by sparing his accomplices. 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.

This ongoing saga continues to overshadow Yemen's efforts to polish up its international image. Last weekend, the Foreign Minister was in Kuwait to mark the normalisation of diplomatic relations after the conflict with Iraq eight years ago, in which Yemen was perceived as sympathising with Saddam.

Next month, Sana'a will host the Emerging Democracies Forum, a high-profile conference sponsored by the UN and various western governments, including the United Sates and Britain. That in turn will be a prelude to the country's first direct presidential election, scheduled for October. But the election itself may be hampered by a lack of credible candidates to challenge President Salih. So far the only candidate to have declared his hand is a sheikh who belongs to the president's own party and wants to establish a religious police force.