Yemen likely to free jailed Britons early

Yemen likely to free jailed Britons early

by Brian Whitaker

This is a longer version of an article which appeared in The Guardian on 14 September 2000

YEMEN is planning an early release for five young Britons jailed on terrorism charges. The move follows a meeting between foreign secretary Robin Cook and President Ali Abdullah Salih in London last week.

The men were among a group of 10 found guilty last year of plotting to attack British and American targets in Aden.

The Yemeni authorities said they had been sent on a bombing mission by Abu Hamza al-Masri, the fiery imam of Finsbury Park Mosque, London.

Most of the Britons were arrested in December 1998 before any attacks had been carried out. A few days later a Yemeni-based group, the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, which had links with Abu Hamza, kidnapped a party of 16 mainly British tourists in the hope of securing the men's release.

Four tourists died in a shootout between the kidnappers and Yemeni security forces. The kidnappers' leader was later executed.

Malik Nassar Harhara, 27, from Birmingham, and Londoner Mohsin Ghailan, 20, the stepson of Abu Hamza, were both sentenced to seven years for their part in the alleged bomb plot.

Shahid Butt, 34, and Sarmad Ahmed, 23, both from Birmingham, were jailed for five years. Mohammed Mustafa Kamel, 18, the son of Abu Hamza, who was alleged by the prosecution to have masterminded the plot, received three years.

Three other Britons were sentenced to time served since their arrest and returned home last autumn. Two other men, who had been living in Britain but are not British nationals, are still in jail.

The case damaged relations between Britain and Yemen, and both sides are now keen to bring it to a close. An early release would please sections of the British Muslim community who have accused the government of not doing enough on the men's behalf.

The Yemeni authorities are concerned that prolonged detention of the Britons could led to more terrorist attacks, but they are insisting that they should complete at least two years in jail. President Salih would then look for "an appropriate occasion" to release them.

The first likely occasions after the two-year period would be the Muslim festival of 'Id al-Adha (March 6 next year) or Yemen's National Day (May 22).

Yemen, in turn, is looking for a relaxation of the Foreign Office's travel advice which says: "We advise against all holiday and other non-essential travel to Yemen".

Britain issued its warning as a result of the 1998 kidnaps and tour companies removed Yemen from their brochures - with disastrous results for Yemeni tourism.

Meanwhile there is growing concern about the large numbers of British and American Muslims who visit Yemen to study extreme versions of Islam. Some obtain visas by registering for bona fide Arabic language courses which they never attend.

About 30 Britons are currently at the Wada'a Religious Institute in the wild far north of Yemen, where foreigners are not encouraged to go because of the risk of kidnapping.

Last July a 16-year-old London boy, Hosea Walker, was shot dead at the institute by another youth who was allegedly cleaning a gun.