The Obama administration is facing scrutiny for its role in the imprisonment of a Yemeni journalist who exposed how the United States was behind a 2009 bombing in Yemen that killed 14 women and 21 children. In January 2011, a Yemeni state security court gave the journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a five-year jail sentence on terrorism-related charges following a disputed trial that was condemned by several human rights and press freedom groups. Within a month of Shaye’s sentencing, then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he was going to pardon the journalist. But Saleh changed his mind after a phone call from President Obama. Thirteen months later, Shaye remains behind bars. We speak to Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists and award-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. "Abdulelah Haider Shaye [is] a brave journalist. He just happened to be on the wrong side of history in the eyes of the U.S.," Scahill says. "His crime seems to be interviewing the wrong people and having the audacity to publish another side of the story." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re going to turn now to Yemen. The Obama administration is coming under new scrutiny this week for its role in the imprisonment of a prominent Yemeni journalist who helped expose how the United States was behind a 2009 bombing in Yemen that killed 14 women and 21 children. In January 2011, a Yemeni state security court gave the journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a five-year jail sentence on terrorism-related charges following a disputed trial that was condemned by several human rights and press freedom groups.
Speaking from a caged cell in a Yemeni courtroom, Shaye told reporters at his trial that he was arrested because he reported on the murders of children and women.
ABDULELAH HAIDER SHAYE: [translated] When they hid murderers of children and women in Abyan, when I revealed the locations and camps of nomads and civilians in Abyan, Shabwa and Arhab, when they were going to be hit by cruise missiles, it was on that day they decided to arrest me. You notice in the court how they have turned all of my journalistic contributions and quotations to international reporters and channels into accusations. Yemen, this is a place where, when a young journalist becomes successful, he is considered with suspicion.
AMY GOODMAN: Within a month of Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s sentencing, then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he was going to pardon the journalist. But Saleh changed his mind after a phone call from President Obama. According to a White House read-out, Obama, quote, "expressed concern" over the release of Shaye. Thirteen months later, the journalist remains locked up.
Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s case is receiving new attention this week following an exposé in The Nation magazine by Jeremy Scahill called "Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?"
Jeremy just recently returned from Yemen, where he interviewed Shaye’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, and Shaye’s close friend, the dissident [political] cartoonist Kamal Sharaf. Abdulrahman Barman described the impact of President Obama’s phone call.
ABDULRAHMAN BARMAN: [translated] Yes, there was a visit by some social figures and sheikhs to the president, and they negotiated his release and his pardon. We were all waiting in the office for the release memo, which was printed and prepared in a file for the president to sign. And he was to announce the pardon the next day. But the mediators were hasty to announce that pardon. That same day, President Obama called the Yemeni president to express U.S. concerns over the release of Abdulelah Haider.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Prior to his arrest, Abdulelah Haider Shaye broke a number of important stories about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and he did the last known interview with Anwar al-Awlaki just before it was revealed that Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric, was on a CIA hit list. While Shaye often appeared on Al Jazeera and his investigative work was used by international journalists, in the eyes of the United States he was a terrorist.
This is his friend, the political cartoonist Kamal Sharaf.
KAMAL SHARAF: [translated] He was so interested in revealing the truth, to reveal the American exploitation of al-Qaeda to occupy some Islamic countries culturally and economically. What is al-Qaeda, who supports it? Why is it in a war with America? These questions were raised by all. All of us wanted to know what is going on. We were only exposed to Western media and Arab media funded by the West, which depicts only one image of al-Qaeda. We haven’t heard other viewpoints. But Abdulelah brought a different viewpoint.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation magazine, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Democracy Now! correspondent. We’re also joined by Mohamed Abdel Dayem, coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeremy, you’re just recently back from Yemen. Talk about Shaye, just who he is and how you learned about his case.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I learned about his case because of the bombing of al-Majalah in December of 2009. You’ll recall it was the first time that President Obama, that we know of, authorized a U.S. strike against Yemen. And when the strike initially happened, the United States’ position was to say nothing. There were some anonymous officials that had leaked some information to news networks indicating that the U.S. was behind the bombing, but the official position was that it was a Yemeni strike and that an al-Qaeda camp had been targeted and that 34 members of al-Qaeda had been killed.
Then Amnesty International obtained photographs of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs from the scene and pictures and video of the bodies of dead women and children. And Amnesty International then determined that it had to have been a U.S. strike, because Yemen didn’t have those missiles and didn’t have those cluster bombs, and that, in fact, the victims of—among the victims of that strike were a tremendous number of women and children. Well, the individual who provided that documentary evidence to Al Jazeera—or, excuse me, to Amnesty International and to Al Jazeera and other networks was Abdulelah Haider Shaye.
And he also came to international prominence following the Fort Hood shooting, where Major Nidal Hasan shot up and killed more than a dozen of his colleagues on the U.S. Army base in Texas. Abdulelah Haider was the first journalist to interview Anwar Awlaki, the—who was a U.S. citizen and is sort of characterized as a radical cleric. Of course, he was killed in a U.S. drone strike last September. And because of Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s interview with him, the sort of pro-assassination punditry started to get ammunition, because in that interview, Awlaki praises Nidal Hasan’s shooting of these soldiers. And so that really started the ball in motion for the sort of move to kill Anwar Awlaki.
I bring that up and mention that because if you look at Haider’s interview with Awlaki, it actually was a pretty objective interview. He pushed back on Awlaki. He pointed out contradictions of previous statements of Awlaki. He said to him, "How can you support the killing of Hasan’s fellow Americans?" Haider worked with ABC News. The Washington Post paid his expenses for him to go and do an interview with Awlaki. He was identified by the New York Times as an al-Qaeda expert. And all of a sudden then, you find him becoming the target of the Saleh regime. And he is arrested, the first time in July of 2010, kidnapped off the streets, taken and interrogated, threatened, told by Yemeni intelligence officials, "Stop talking about the Majalah bombing." He’s released onto the streets in the middle of the night and then immediately goes over to Al Jazeera and does an interview on Al Jazeera, continues talking out. In fact, I think Mohamed—
AMY GOODMAN: He describes what happened to him.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, and described what happened. I think Mohamed actually met him around that time in Yemen.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, interestingly, the Obama administration is claiming that he is a terrorist, that he was assisting al-Qaeda. But you also talk about why he was able to get such access to key opposition figures to the U.S. government. Could you talk about that and his—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —his unusual access to some of these figures?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. He, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, is, by marriage, related to a sort of prominent jihadist cleric, Abdul Majid Zindani, who is a U.S. Treasury Department-designated terrorist and the founder of Iman University in Yemen. And a lot of sort of now internationally famous jihadists have gone through that university. And we was someone who was of interest to the U.S. for a long time. And so, because of his relations, relationship with Zindani, he was given access to a world that a lot of journalists are not able to gain access to. And so, he interviewed the heads of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When al-Qaeda people wanted to give an interview, he would be one of the few journalists that they would reach out to to do these kinds of interviews. And so, he was able to access that world because of his relations.
But it’s important to also point out that Abdulelah Haider was not just a mouthpiece for these al-Qaeda figures. He was very critical of conservative Salafist movements in Yemen. He also did critical reporting about Zindani, his own relative, and was—you know, was a sort of fiercely independent character.
And so, when he was tried, eventually—first of all, he was abducted for 30 days and disappeared. His family didn’t know where he was. The government didn’t acknowledge it. He was arrested in a house raid. No one knew where he was taken. When he finally was brought to trial, he was tried in a court that was set up by a presidential decree in Yemen with the explicit intent to go after journalists who were criticizing the regime. And his lawyers say that the evidence against him included fabricated correspondence taken from a computer that did not belong to Abdulelah Haider, that was not on the initial evidence list. And his trial was widely condemned around the world. In fact, he refused to present a defense, because, he said, "I don’t recognize the legitimacy of this court." In fact, you know, Abdulrahman Barman—and we have another clip of him—he talked about why Shaye initially was on the sort of—in the sights of the Yemeni government after this Majalah bombing, what the significance was of that Majalah bombing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that clip right now.
ABDULRAHMAN BARMAN: [translated] The al-Majalah situation was a scandal for the United States. Abdulelah has a lot of relationships and contacts, so he could collect a lot of information quickly and publish photos of victims who were children and women. That greatly embarrassed the U.S. and also the Yemeni government. What happened in al-Majalah was not an attack against terrorism, but an attack against innocent women, children and families. Abdulelah talked about the tragedies of the families killed in al-Majalah and was able to publish the names of some of the victims. He reported on a family with a mother, father and five children who were all killed and a baby killed in her mother’s lap when she was sleeping.
All of these things provoked public anger in Yemen and outside of Yemen. I think this issue also influenced the public inside the U.S. and the U.S. policies, and it put the United States in a very embarrassing light before its own people. They wanted to silence Abdulelah’s voice about al-Qaeda, about the war on terror, and about the crimes and human rights violations committed during this war against terrorism. Abdulelah represented a source of great worry to the U.S. and the Yemeni government. They wanted him imprisoned to silence his voice and to also send a message to other journalists. There is an extreme fear among journalists now concerning interviews with al-Qaeda members. Before the issue of Abdulelah, journalists were competing over who would have the opportunity to interview al-Qaeda leaders. Now they’re afraid, especially after what happened to Abdulelah.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s attorney, Abdulrahman Barman. When we come back, we’re going to talk more about his reports. The clips you’re hearing are broadcasting exclusively here on Democracy Now! Special thanks to Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill, just back from Yemen. His piece, "Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?" Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Jeremy Scahill. His latest piece in The Nation is called "Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?" And we’re joined by Mohamed Abdel Dayem, coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Talk about meeting Shaye for the first time. When did you meet him?
MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: This was July 2010. I was actually in Yemen to do some research on the constitutionality, or lack thereof, of this special tribunal. I was not there to meet Shaye, per se. He was one of many people I was going to talk to. And this then turned out to be just two nights before he was kidnapped, abducted off of the street. And immediately I could tell this was, you know, a very smart journalist and a journalist who really was willing to put a lot on the line to get the tough stories, because everybody can get the easy stories. And that was my initial impression of him. And I was in Yemen for a little less than two weeks, and I saw him right before getting arrested. And then I also happened to be at Al Jazeera right when he was released, and he called to me—
AMY GOODMAN: The first time.
MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Correct. And he called to me. He said, "I’m on my way out of prison. I’m going to go home. I’m putting on a different jacket. This one has blood on it. I’ll be there in 20 minutes." And he came, and he spilled the beans, on the air. So I—
AMY GOODMAN: Spilled the beans by saying what?
MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: By saying what had happened and what they told him to do. And, you know—
AMY GOODMAN: What did they tell him to do?
MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: "You may not talk about this. And you’re making us look bad." And really, it had nothing to do with the U.S. He was making the Yemeni government look bad. He was on Al Jazeera frequently. And he revealed how Yemen’s counterterrorism tactics were just a failure, and in more ways than one, and how if you bombed a village and you killed one al-Qaeda guy and, you know, 10 families, that was probably not a good thing in the long run. It wasn’t going to fix the problem of al-Qaeda on the long run. And he said that, and he said it very clearly and openly. And that made him a target for the Yemeni government.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when he was subsequently arrested and then his actual trial—could you talk about the procedures of that trial itself?
MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Yeah. The trial does not pass the laugh test, at all. And the court does not pass the laugh test. And actually, in my research, I could not locate a single case that was tried in this special—specialized criminal tribunal—you can just tell by the name that this is—this is not going to be a serious affair. I could not find a single case that met, even remotely, like fair trial standards. So there’s no transparency. There’s no proper appeals process. Lawyers are deprived of a lot of the files. Things are slid in last minute. It just failed to meet those standards. And this is not just my opinion, but this was observed by every single person who attended these sessions, when they were allowed to attend.
JEREMY SCAHILL: See, this is—what’s important to realize here—
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What’s important to realize here, and what Mohamed is saying, is that, on one side of this, you have major media freedom organizations. You have major human rights organizations—Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International. You have every legal and human rights organization in Yemen. You have very prominent foreign correspondents who have spoken out on this case, some of whom knew Abdulelah Haider Shaye. So they’re on one side of it, condemning his trial as a sham, talking about who he actually was as a journalist.
And on the other side of it, you have the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a specialized criminal tribunal set up to go after journalists, and the White House. And so, President Obama is the single person keeping that man in prison right now, because even the dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was prepared to release him, and it was a phone call, not from one of Obama’s people, from Obama himself, that kept him in prison.
And so, when I called the State Department, one of the things I said is, "What is the evidence that you have to support your contention that Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a terrorist or is affiliated with al-Qaeda?" And they said, "We don’t have anything to say on that right now." So, you know, that’s how much of a sham this is. So anyone who wants to say, "Well, Obama must know what he’s doing," needs to realize that you’re taking a position against major human rights organizations and journalist organizations against the United States, which is currently engaged in its biggest crackdown on whistleblowers in history. So just be clear on what side of the line you’re on, if you’re a journalist, when you say that.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, I want to get all these clips in—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —these interviews that you did while you were in Yemen, because they haven’t been aired before. Let’s turn to Kamal Sharaf, the Yemeni political cartoonist. Here he describes why his friend, the journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye, was seen as such a threat.
KAMAL SHARAF: [translated] He was focusing on how Saleh was using the al-Qaeda card to gain more money and logistical support from the United States. This angered the regime. Now the U.S. realizes that the issue of al-Qaeda was exaggerated to gain money. This issue pushed the regime to kidnap him one month before the arrest. He was kidnapped from the street. We were together, when I went into a supermarket. When I came back, I saw armed people grabbing him and taking him into a car. He was arrested for hours and released after midnight at dawn. He was threatened, and they tried to persuade him. They told him that this issue would destroy his life. One of the interrogators told him, "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue."
Abdulelah was the only person critical and speaking the truth about al-Qaeda, so he had significance in the Arab world and in America. Abdulelah continued to reveal facts not for the sake of the Americans or al-Qaeda, but because he believed that he was saying the truth and that his journalistic role was to reveal the facts, to reveal the real relation between al-Qaeda and America and the regime.
JUAN GONZALEZ: When Yemeni journalist Shaye was arrested a second time, Yemeni security forces also detained his friend Kamal Sharaf. Kamal described what happened.
KAMAL SHARAF: [translated] I saw soldiers I had never seen before. They were tall and heavy. They reminded me of American marines. Then I knew that they were from the counterterrorism unit. They had modern laser guns. They were wearing American-type uniform. They said they wanted us to come with them. I asked, "What are we accused of?" They said, "You will find out."
At the same time, there were some soldiers surrounding Abdulelah’s house. Abdulelah refused to go out, so they raided his house, took him by force, beat him, broke his teeth and treated him cruelly.
We were both taken blindfolded and handcuffed to the national security prison, which is supported by the Americans. We were treated badly and then were placed in underground solitary confinement. They logged in our details. I was in dark solitary confinement for half an hour. I didn’t know what was going on. We were kept for about 30 days during Ramadan in the national security prison, where we were continuously interrogated.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the political cartoonist, Kamal Sharaf, Jeremy, who you were talking to.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And he—you know, he was—this just shows the climate that exists in Yemen about press freedom. Kamal Sharaf was arrested, allegedly because he had drawn an offensive political cartoon of President Saleh, and because he was expressing his opinions about the Saleh government’s war against a minority population in the north of Yemen called the Houthis. So he’s arrested.
And, you know, we’re showing now a cartoon that Kamal Sharaf drew of his friend, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who’s in a prison that consists of bars making up the American—the U.S. flag, and then there’s an older white man standing next to him holding a key, and that is the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, who has been militantly in favor of keeping Abdulelah Haider Shaye in prison. In fact, when Iona Craig, the great correspondent in Yemen who writes for The Times of London, questioned the U.S. ambassador recently and brought up Shaye’s case, Feierstein literally laughed in her face and said, "He’s a terrorist, and if other Yemeni journalists don’t do what he did, they have nothing to fear from us, from the Americans." And what he did—and this is how everyone in Yemen sees it—was interview al-Awlaki, interview al-Qaeda people, and expose that the U.S. had killed a bunch of women and children in a strike that they celebrated as a major victory against al-Qaeda.
So, you know, you have Kamal Sharaf arrested, and they only let him out of prison, this, you know, gulag he was put in, when he agreed not to draw any more pictures of Ali Abdullah Saleh. So they took away his voice in return for his so-called freedom. Since Saleh is gone now, Kamal Sharaf has started speaking out again and writing again, but this is the climate of fear that’s there. And this is—these are the people, the government, the systems, that President Obama is supporting by keeping journalists in prison and continuing to support Saleh after Saleh in Yemen, which is what the government is there now.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Mohamed, the irony or the contradiction of the Obama administration trying to pressure other governments to free journalists, but here actually pressuring a government to keep a journalist in prison?
MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Yeah, I mean, the U.S.—the U.S. government has a record of pressuring authoritarian regimes to release journalists who are being held unjustly. This has happened many times, and many times across this region. And then, the problem is, when you look at Yemen, we have this court that was designed and put in place only so that you can bludgeon journalists into submission. And this idea of a pardon after being convicted by this court, every single journalist that has been convicted by this court was eventually pardoned. So, you know, they sentence you. They send a message to everybody else. And then you go to prison for a month or two or three or four. And then, when it’s Eid or some religious holiday or something, they go, "OK, pardons for everybody," and everybody just leaves. And it’s supposed to be, you know, a slap on the wrist and a "Don’t forget who’s boss here," except in this case it’s spiraled totally out of control.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back for the final clip to Shaye’s attorney, Abdulrahman Barman, describing how Shaye was beaten and psychologically—
JEREMY SCAHILL: "Tortured" was the word he used.
AMY GOODMAN: —tortured by Yemeni security forces.
ABDULRAHMAN BARMAN: [translated] Abdulelah Haider received many threats from the security forces over the phone. And when he was kidnapped for the first time, they beat him and interrogated him concerning his statements and the analysis on the al-Majalah issue and the U.S. war against terrorism here in Yemen.
I think he was arrested based on a request from the American government. At the time of his arrest, they beat him, even though he did not resist them. He was asked by soldiers to come, and he went with them. They took him from his house. And when they were in his yard, the soldiers beat him cruelly using the butts of their guns. And one of them bit him in the chest, and the scar was still there when we met him.
In prison, he was not physically tortured, but he was psychologically tortured. He was put in a dirty bathroom for five days. He was told that all of his friends and family members had left him, that he was alone, and that no one supported his case. He was tortured by false information.
In the first session of the prosecution, I noticed that one of Abdulelah’s teeth was extracted and that another one was broken, in addition to some scars on his chest. That was after 25 days of detention. There were a lot of scars on his chest. We have noted that in the general prosecution minutes, and we requested a referral to a forensic doctor to prove the torture on his body. He was referred, but we have not received a copy of the doctor’s report, and we have not been allowed to make a copy for his case file so far.
AMY GOODMAN: Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s attorney, Abdulrahman Barman. We just have 30 seconds, Jeremy, but a couple things. Saleh was just in the United States. Clearly, the White House had total access to him as he stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria and was protested—
JEREMY SCAHILL: The Ritz-Carlton.
AMY GOODMAN: At the Ritz Carlton, and was protested repeatedly by Yemenis outside. So, he’s in close contact with him, though he returned to his country, and he’s not president anymore. And also a question about WikiLeaks and what it has revealed.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, WikiLeaks confirmed the kinds of things that Abdulelah Haider Shaye was alleging and that the U.S. and Yemeni governments had such a problem with being revealed—namely, that the U.S. has this covert war in Yemen and that it’s actively conspired with the Yemeni government to cover up the American role and that Yemen often takes credit for operations that are U.S. operations.
The final point I would make about this is that local journalists around the world—and in these cases, many of them are Arab journalists that no one’s ever heard of—they get killed more than anyone else, they get wounded more than anyone else, they get imprisoned by these dictatorships more than anyone else. Without them, if their voices are silenced, we will not get anywhere near the complete picture of what’s happening in these war zones, in these dictatorships. You see the bravery of citizen journalists in Syria. Abdulelah Haider Shaye was a brave journalist. He just happened to be on the wrong side of history in the eyes of the U.S. And his crime seems to be interviewing the wrong people and having the audacity to publish another side of the story. That should be unacceptable to all journalists. He should be just as—his cause should be just as important as Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran, and a huge international outcry was made for her. What about Abdulelah Haider Shaye? He deserves the support of journalists around the world. He needs to be released from prison.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, you can go to The Nation for his latest piece, "Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?" And Mohamed Abdel Dayem, coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a debate on Big Labor’s endorsement of President Obama’s re-election. Stay with us.