Mansour Rajih freed

Yemen's most famous prisoner, Mansour Rajih, has been released after 15 years under the shadow of execution. The poet and political writer was arrested in 1983 following the murder of Sheikh Ahmed al-Sarari. After a trial which is now widely regarded as flawed, he was sentenced to death.

Mr Rajih's release - and departure for political asylum in Norway - earlier this month has healed one of the lingering sores from Yemen's pre-unification era. Along with other members of his family, the poet was a supporter of the National Democratic Front, a Marxist organisation which waged a guerilla struggle against President Salih's regime in the northern provinces of Taizz, Ibb and al-Baydah. At the time, the NDF was backed by the rival Marxist regime in southern Yemen.

Although the murdered sheikh had been a strong supporter of President Salih, the president always seemed reluctant to confirm the death sentence on Mr Rajih. The poet was eventually adopted as a prisoner of conscience by various human rights organisations and several European governments lobbied on his behalf. For a long time, diplomatic efforts were frustrated by the Yemeni government's claim that it could not find a suitable legal mechanism to bring about Mr Rajih's release. The impasse was resolved when Sheikh Sarari's relatives agreed, under intense pressure, to drop their claim for retribution.

Meanwhile President Salih cut short a state visit to Indonesia last weekend in order to attend discussions of the Iraq crisis in Abu Dhabi. During the 1990-91 conflict over Kuwait, Yemen attracted international attention as the only dissenting member of the UN Security Council - and paid a heavy price. Much of its foreign aid was cut and about 750,000 Yemeni guest workers were forced to return home from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. After working hard for several years to restore its reputation, this time Yemen has been careful not to diverge too far from mainstream opinion in the international community. Although it has been helped in this by the position that America's erstwhile allies have adopted, it has also made efforts to appear constructive. During a visit to Britain late last year President Salih said he had relayed the Blair government's views to Baghdad.

The Yemeni authorities have also been trying to cool popular opinion at home, which tends to be strongly in favour of Iraq. Security forces in Sana'a dispersed what were described as "unlicensed" demonstrations against the American/British military build-up. But members of the Yemeni parliament criticised Abd al-Rahman al-Akwa, the Information Minister, for failing to broadcast a statement that parliament had issued. The statement, which denounced military and political campaigns against Iraq, was considered to be out of line with the government's foreign policy.

Copyright © Brian Whitaker 1998