Law and order

DESPITE continuing security problems, Yemen is pressing ahead with plans for the country's first direct presidential election in October.

So far, no party has named a candidate. President Ali Abdullah Salih insists it is "too early to say" whether he will stand, but he is expected to be nominated by the ruling party, the General People's Congress, at a meeting in July. The main opposition party, Islah, said earlier that it would be supporting Salih (MEI 590).

The Yemen Socialist Party, which formerly ruled south before unification, boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 1997 and as a result does not have the 10% of parliamentary seats needed to nominate a candidate.

However, the GPC wants the election to appear credible and has offered to "lend" the YSP enough members of parliament to field a competitor. As MEI went to press, a response from the socialists was still awaited.

Following a meeting between Salih and opposition leaders, the government has also promised to revise the voting lists. There have been complaints that up to half a million people (out of 4.6 million) are registered twice.

In the Aden "bomb plot" trial, lawyers for the British defendants appear to have won two significant concessions after boycotting the case. For the first time since the men were arrested, three of the seven-man defence team have now been allowed private meetings with their clients.

The judge has also agreed to an independent medical examination of the defendants, following claims that their confessions were obtained under torture. The judge's solution is to have the men examined by a panel of three doctors - two Yemenis and a third from "a neutral and friendly country". All three will have to be approved by the Yemeni health ministry but the lawyers may be allowed to nominate a doctor from France, Germany, the Netherlands or the United States.

Government sources in Sana'a continue to regard Abu Hamza al-Masri, the London-based imam, as the ringleader of the alleged bomb plot and also emphasise his links to the related kidnapping case. Now that the British police are showing serious interest in his activities there are suggestions that his relatives and alleged supporters in Aden could be given lenient sentences if convicted.

In the parallel kidnap trial, however, it seems unlikely that Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, the leader of the Islamic Army, will avoid a death sentence. Whether he will actually be executed is another matter. The Yemeni government is torn between the need to take a firm line on terrorism and the need to avoid further trouble from Abu al-Hassan's supporters. There are reports of strenuous efforts being made by the authorities to win over key members of his tribe.

Elsewhere in Yemen, law-and-order problems continue. Earlier this month, Mohammed Aziz Abu Nashtan, a member of the YSP central committee, was shot dead near Sana'a airport. A gun battle followed and one of the attackers was also reported killed. The YSP said the aim of the attack was to terrorise the party but a government spokesman said there was no political motive: "He was the victim of an act of vengeance which was sparked 20 years ago."

Two days later, customs officers in Moldova intercepted 5,000 guns aboard a Ukrainian cargo plane bound for Yemen. The aircraft, which was travelling from Budapest, made an unscheduled stop in Moldova for technical reasons. Documents presented to customs claimed it was carrying oil equipment and made no mention of the weapons.

Last weekend, the interior minister, General Hussein Arab, announced that security services had foiled an attempt to kidnap a judge in Dhamar province and that 10 people had been arrested.