Yemen: court chaos as five fight jail

Panic erupts as Britons accused in Yemen are told they face death sentences. It's an hour before they hear it was all just a mistake by a translator

THE WHEELS of Yemeni justice have enmeshed the five jailed Britons in a machine that grinds slowly forward one moment, spins dizzily the next, then wheezes to a halt. No one is sure who is in control.

The men's Yemeni and British lawyers were again left in a bewildered huddle outside Aden's Primary Court Number One yesterday after the judge abruptly adjourned the trial until tomorrow.

Defence lawyers had still not been given most of the investigation files and were allowed just a one-hour chat with the men on Thursday. They had not seen any of the contested confessions.

Prosecutors have flouted promises from Yemen's Prime Minister, and the judge, for independent doctors to be allowed to examine the men. A British GP and a Home Office pathologist have flown to Aden but have yet to see the men - vital if the claims of torture are to seriously challenge their confessions.

The judge, who sits without a jury, overruled pleas for an adjournment, and ordered the trial to go ahead. The defence had no idea what witnesses would be called, or what they would say.

Ms Gareth Pierce, the British lawyer campaigning for the men's release, said in London last night: 'The lawyers out there are not really able to be lawyers at all. We are worried that we are giving the trial credibility by even being there.' Privately, the Britons' supporters said yesterday's cross-examinations by Badr Basunaid, an Aden-based human rights lawyer, were a disaster.

Potentially significant inconsistencies in the testimonies of two police officers went unchallenged.

At one stage Basunaid walked out in protest at the unsuccessful adjournment request, but failed to tell his colleagues who remained in court assuming he had gone to the toilet. The chief prosecutor persuaded him to return.

The amount of evidence in front of the judge - including rockets, TNT and mines - were not bagged, had not been fingerprinted, and were pawed by the curious.

Chaos erupted on Wednesday after the court translator mistakenly said the suspects faced the death sentence. It was an hour before panicked relatives were assured 10 years' imprisonment was the maximum penalty.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni government was bombarding the world's media with its case against the the six men on trial, and three more who were arrested last week.

It claimed they were sent from Britain by Abu Hamza to be trained by the guerrilla group known as the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan and then sent to carry out bombings in Yemen. Apart from Abu Hamza's stepson, the accused include his natural son and a man who was due to marry into the family.

Four days after the first wave of arrests, Abu Hamza's Yemeni friend, Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, who leads the Islamic Army, kidnapped 16 tourists, mostly British, in the hope of exchanging them for the prisoners. Abu Hamza admits discussing the kidnapping with Abu al-Hassan - and what to do with the hostages - by satellite telephone barely an hour after it happened.

If the Yemeni version is to be believed, Abu Hamza, a man with no obvious wealth who claims disability benefit, somehow managed to provide well over pounds 20,000 for subversion in Yemen.

Yemeni sources say the costs included at least 12 flights to Yemen, hotel bills, reents for a villa and car, military training, satellite telephones, satellite positioning devices, a video camera for Abu al-Hassan and other electronic equipment.

For good measure, he also, allegedly, supplied spare British passports 'for use if needed'.

In the 'confessions' of the accused, parts of which were published in the Yemeni press, Abu Hamza is portrayed as urging his young followers to support Islamic struggles in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Egypt, 'because they do not follow the Islamic Way'.

According to these statements, his interest in Yemen appears to be largely incidental - as a training ground rather than as a theatre of operations.

He is alleged to have told the accused at a meeting in London: 'After Afghanistan, Yemen is the most suitable country for training mujahideen, because the nature of Afghanistan resembles that of Yemen.' These statements have since been retracted by the accused.

Another of the accused, Shahid Butt, said in his statement that his ambition was to go to Kosovo. He had contacted Abu Hamza, having heard that he might help help him to get there. Abu Hamza allegedly said his wish would be granted, but only if he went to Yemen for weapons training first.

Some of the testimony published last week also questions the motive of Abu al-Hassan of the Islamic Army. The statement of Muhsin Ghailan describes a meeting in the Finsbury Park mosque where a visitor from Yemen, known as 'Amin', passed around a recruiting leaflet for the Islamic Army which said its aim was to separate southern Yemen from the North.