Trials in progress

Trials in progress

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 26 February 1999

THE TRIAL in Yemen of 14 men accused of kidnapping western tourists and killing four of them has so far raised almost as many questions as it has answered.

Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, leader of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, which carried out the kidnapping on December 28, told the court in Zinjibar that he gave orders to kill the hostages in the event of a rescue operation, but said his instruction was "to kill only the men, and not the women". Two of the dead hostages, however, were women.

From the evidence of witnesses, it is reasonably certain that the kidnappers fired the first shots, but perhaps only as a warning to approaching security forces. It is also clear that the kidnappers refused to negotiate with a local sheikh and officials, but perhaps only because they were expecting a phone call from someone "at a very high level".

Much attention has focused on the satellite phone with which Abu al-Hassan made numerous calls during the kidnapping. A Yemeni driver who was seized along with the tourists, said he heard Abu al-Hassan describe his hostages on the phone as ordered goods: "We've got the goods that were ordered - 1,600 cartons marked 'British' and 'American'."

Asked whether this was a call to Abu Hamza al-Masri, the London-based imam, the driver said he did not know.

Later that night, according to the same witness, Abu al-Hassan phoned Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (president Salih's half-brother), demanding the release of some comrades who had been arrested in Aden.

When one of the other defendants was asked how Abu al-Hassan had acquired the satellite phone, he said it had been brought from London Muhsin Ghailan (Abu Hamza's stepson, who is a defendant in the related "bomb plot" trial in Aden).

One of the accused, 19-year-old Sa'ad Atif, maintains that he could not have been involved in the kidnapping because he was arrested on December 23, five days before it happened. His brother, Ahmad, who is also on trial, says he was arrested when he went to look for Sa'ad. Last weekend he produced four witnesses to testify that he was in Rada' - miles away - at the time of the kidnapping.

So far, only five of the 14 defendants have appeared in court. Two others are reported to have given themselves up recently but the remaining seven are still at large, though there have been reports of negotiations with the Aulaqi tribe for their surrender.

Sections of the Yemeni press have hinted that non-legal considerations are also playing a part in this case. One paper has claimed there is an agreement not to mention various (unspecified) people in court, and Jihad representatives are said to have held a secret meeting with senior government figures in Sana'a.

In the Aden "bomb plot" trial, the number of defendants has now swelled to 10 - eight Britons and two Algerians who were allegedly living in Britain. The case was again thrown into confusion when one of the new arrivals - 17-year-old Mustapha Kamil (Abu Hamza's natural son) - pleaded guilty to forming an armed gang, though he denied other charges.

Lawyers for five of the original six defendants are seeking to have the case dismissed on the grounds that confessions were obtained through torture. Shortly before MEI went to press, a Yemeni doctor told the court that marks on the men's arms were due to a combination of handcuffs and mosquito bites - a claim which the defence disputes.

Meanwhile, Yemen's deputy interior minister announced that 1,827 illegal immigrants had been deported during the last three months as part of the government's clamp-down against Islamic militants. They included 869 Arabs, 725 Africans and 233 Asians. According to Attagamu' newspaper, the defence ministry has also imposed a ban on beards in the armed forces "in view of the circumstances facing the country".