Journalist arrested

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 19 March 2004

The arrest of a journalist on charges of "spreading false news damaging to public interest and security" has inadvertently highlighted questions about Yemen's presidential succession.

Saeed Thabet, a correspondent for Quds Press Agency and a board member of the Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate, was seized by agents of the Political Security Organisation while returning from Friday prayers with his three-year-old son. Such was the apparent urgency of the case that he was not even allowed to take his son home before being whisked off to jail.

His offence, allegedly, was to write about a rumoured attempt on the life of Colonel Ahmad Ali Salih, eldest son of President Ali Abdullah Salih.

According to the story, Ahmad was shot and wounded by a military commander, identified as Ali al-Marani, at Suwad Haziz camp, a few miles south of the capital, Sana'a.

The military commander was in turn shot dead and Ahmad (again, according to the story) was flown in a private jet to the al-Hussein Medical City in Jordan to be treated for his injuries.

The tale seems to have been untrue, though it was several days before Ahmad appeared in public to show that he was alive and well - allowing speculation to grow in the meantime.

Tales of armed quarrels are part of the normal news-and-rumour mill in Yemen but, whether true or false, they do not usually stir the Political Security Organisation into action. The difference in this case was that President Salih's son was the central character.

Ahmad, who is in his mid-thirties, is supposedly an ordinary citizen though many believe he is being groomed to succeed his father, as happened in Syria with Bashar al-Asad four years ago and may eventually happen in Egypt with Gamal Mubarak and in Libya with Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi.

President Salih, 61, has neither confirmed nor denied this, pointing out that Ahmad has the same legal rights as any other Yemeni to stand for the presidency (though of course he does have a head start).

Ahmad became a member of parliament in 1997, elected by a huge majority in a district where many of the ruling party's elite (including his father) were registered voters.

He later spent several unhappy months at Britain's top military academy, Sandhurst, but dropped out and returned to Yemen where he was put in charge of various security functions, among them the prevention of kidnapping. He is currently head of the Republican Guard and the Special Forces.

Thabet's arrest brought a swift and vociferous response from Yemeni journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. One group, the "National Authority for Defending Rights and Freedoms", complained: "Yemen is not a monarchy in which people cannot talk about the members of the royal family".

According to the Yemen Times, some 30 lawyers volunteered to defend him and more than 300 journalists turned up for his court appearance - many of them carrying placards or wearing gags over their mouths.

Thabet denies responsibility for the offending article, saying that the source of the story was in Jordan. The news agency that employs him issued a statement supporting this.

After 72 hours in detention, Thabet was released on bail. His lawyers, meanwhile, are demanding the return of his confiscated mobile phone and are seeking to have the Political Security Organisation prosecuted for "kidnapping" him.

Thabet was the second Yemeni journalist to be detained in less than a month. On 24 February, Najeeb Yabli of the daily al-Ayyam, was questioned for around 12 hours by the political security services in Aden for writing that the politics of the President Salih and the politics of the United States were only two sides of the same coin.

Though the Thabet affair is not yet over, the Yemeni press has shown its teeth and the authorities seem to be backing off. There are now calls to end, once and for all, the practice of arresting journalists for what they write, in line with a similar decision by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt a few weeks ago.