Yemeni Reporter Who Exposed U.S. Drone Strike Freed from Prison After Jailing at Obama’s Request

Democracy Now*

Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye
Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye

HAVANA TIMES – Prominent Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye has been released from prison after being held for three years on terrorism-related charges at the request of President Obama. Shaye helped expose the U.S. cruise missile attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah that killed 41 people, including 14 women and 21 children in December 2009.

Then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced his intention to pardon Shaye in 2011, but apparently changed his mind after a phone call from Obama. In a statement, the White House now says it is “concerned and disappointed” by Shaye’s release.

“We should let that statement set in: The White House is saying that they are disappointed and concerned that a Yemeni journalist has been released from a Yemeni prison,” says Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation, who covers Shaye’s case in “Dirty Wars,” his new book and film by the same name.

“This is a man who was put in prison because he had the audacity to expose a U.S. cruise missile attack that killed three dozen women and children.” We’re also joined by Rooj Alwazir, a Yemeni-American activist who co-founded the Support Yemen media collective and campaigned for Shaye’s release.

AMY GOODMAN: A prominent Yemeni journalist who was imprisoned for three years at the apparent request of the Obama administration has been released in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Abdulelah Haider Shaye was sentenced in January 2011 to five years in jail on terrorism-related charges, following a trial that was condemned by many human rights and press freedom groups. Shaye’s release Tuesday reportedly comes in the form of a presidential pardon that requires him to remain in Sana’a for two years. This could prevent him from traveling to the sites of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, a topic he has previously reported on. Shaye was first imprisoned in 2010 after he helped expose the United States’ role in a 2009 cruise missile attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah that killed 41 people, including 14 women and 21 children. The Yemeni government initially took credit for the strike, saying it had targeted an al-Qaeda training camp. But it was later revealed through WikiLeaks cables that it was in fact a U.S. attack.

Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill reports extensively on this attack in his new book and film called Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. He’ll join us in minute. But first, this is Abdulelah Haider Shaye speaking in 2010. He spoke to reporters from inside a caged cell in a Yemeni courtroom at his trial, saying 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 noticed 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 the young journalist becomes successful, he is considered with suspicion.

AMY GOODMAN: Within a month of Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s sentencing in 2011, then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he was going to pardon the journalist. But Saleh apparently 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. The journalist then remained locked up despite growing calls by human rights groups for his immediate release. Shaye’s lawyer, 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Shaye’s attorney. He was talking to Jeremy Scahill. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill about the release of Abdulelah Haider Shaye. We’ll also be joined by a Yemeni activist. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue on the release of the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye. Prior to his arrest, he broke a number of important stories about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and he did the last known interview with U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki just before it was revealed he was on a CIA hit list. Shaye’s work often appeared on Al Jazeera. His investigative reporting was used by international journalists. This is his friend, the dissident 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: On Wednesday, Amnesty International responded to Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s release by calling on the Yemeni and U.S. governments to investigate whether he was arbitrarily imprisoned based on his work as a journalist, as well as an independent review of the 2009 attack he helped expose.

For more, we’re joined by two people who have closely followed Shaye’s case. Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, who is the producer and writer of the new film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, also author of the new book by the same title, he is the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. We’re also joined in Washington, D.C., by Rooj Alwazir. She’s a Yemeni-American activist who co-founded the Support Yemen media collective based in Sana’a, Yemen. She helped campaign for Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s release and is currently working on a documentary on drone wars.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Rooj Alwazir, were you surprised by the news of Shaye’s release this week? And can you talk about its significance?

ROOJ ALWAZIR: Most definitely. We were expecting something to happen. President Hadi had come out in May, and he had a meeting with U.N. representatives and told them that he promises that Shaye will be coming out sometime before Ramadan, which is sometime before July. But speaking to many of the lawyers that had been working on the case, they’ve kind of—we’ve heard the rhetoric many, many times before, and President Hadi hasn’t really followed up on the timeline that he usually says. So, when we heard the news two days ago, it was a great surprise to many of us, and it was a great, exciting surprise.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about the White House’s response to the release of Shaye. Jeremy Scahill contacted the National Security Council for a response. This is what the National Security Council spokesperson, Bernadette Meehan wrote. She wrote, quote, “We are concerned and disappointed by the early release of Abd-Ilah-Shai, who was sentenced by a Yemeni court to five years in prison for his involvement with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” Jeremy Scahill, talk about what they have said.

JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, we should—we should let that statement set in. The White House is saying that they are disappointed and concerned that a Yemeni journalist has been released from a Yemeni prison. The White House is citing his conviction, that he supposedly was a supporter of al-Qaeda, in a kangaroo court, a court that was condemned by every major international media freedom organization, every major international human rights organization, that it was a total sham trial, where he was kept in a cage during the course of his prosecution and was convicted on trumped-up charges. So, Mr. Constitutional Law Professor President is saying that this Yemeni court, that has been condemned by every international human rights organization in the world, is somehow legitimate.

Secondly, when I’ve asked the White House and the State Department for a shred of evidence that Abdulelah Haider Shaye was guilty of anything other than journalism, critical journalism, they won’t provide it. They just say what they often do: “State secrets. Trust us.”

The fact is, Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a journalist who did very critical interviews with people like Anwar al-Awlaki. If you go back and you read his interviews with Awlaki, he’s challenging him on his praise of the underwear bomb attempt, saying, “But that was a plane full of civilians. How was that a legitimate target?” In fact, I would put forward that Abdulelah Haider Shaye asked more critical questions of figures within the al-Qaeda organization in Yemen than a single member of the “Caviar Correspondents Association” in the United States, those jokers who sit in the front row and pretend to play journalists on television.

This was a man who was put in prison because he had the audacity to expose a U.S. cruise missile attack that killed three dozen women and children. And the United States had tried to cover it up. They had the Yemeni government take responsibility for the strikes. The U.S. role was not initially owned. They said that they had blown up an al-Qaeda training camp. The reality was, women and children were killed. And why do we know that? We know it for two reasons. One is because Abdulelah Haider Shaye went to the scene, he took photographs of what were clearly U.S. cruise missile parts with “General Dynamics” on them, “Made in the United States” on them, and because of the WikiLeaks cables showing that General David Petraeus, who at the time was the CENTCOM commander, conspired with the Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for the United States to begin bombing Yemen in the form of drones and cruise—drone strikes and cruise missile strikes and to have the Yemeni government publicly take responsibility for it. So when Abdulelah Haider Shaye exposed this and it became clear to the world that the Obama administration was starting to bomb Yemen, he was abducted by Yemen’s U.S.-backed political security forces. He was taken to a jail and beaten and told that if he continued to report on the U.S. bombing campaign in Yemen, that he would be put back in jail. He went straight from his beating onto the airwaves of Al Jazeera and said, “I was just abducted by Yemen security forces, and they threatened me.” And then, some months later, his house was raided in a night raid, and he was snatched and disappeared for 30 days. He was then brought into a court that was set up specifically to prosecute journalists who had committed crimes against the U.S.-backed dictatorship and was sentenced to five years in that court.

So, my question for the White House would be: You want to co-sign a dictator’s arrest of a journalist, beating of a journalist, and conviction in a court that every human rights organization in the world has said was a sham court? That’s the side that the White House is on right now, not on the side of press freedom around the world. They’re on the side of locking up journalists who have the audacity to actually be journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip from your film, Jeremy, Dirty Wars, where you go to al-Majalah to speak with residents and survivors of the U.S. cruise missile attack in 2009.

MUQBAL AL-KAZEMI: [translated] People saw the smoke and felt the earth shake. They had never seen anything like it. I ran to the area. I found scattered bodies and injured women and children. Forty-six people were killed, including five pregnant women. If they kill innocent children and call them al-Qaeda, then we are all al-Qaeda. If children are terrorists, then we are all terrorists.

SURVIVOR MOTHER: [translated] At 6:00 a.m., they were sleeping, and I was making bread. When the missiles exploded, I lost consciousness. I didn’t know what happened to my children, my daughter, my husband. They all died. Only I survived, along with this old man and my daughter.

SURVIVOR DAUGHTER: [translated] Missiles attacked me and my brother Ibrahim and my mother. Their hands were cut.

JEREMY SCAHILL: The echoes of Gardez were everywhere, so many of the details repeating themselves. But there was one important difference: In Gardez, the American soldiers went to obscene lengths to cover up the killings; here in al-Majalah, despite the official denial, they had left their fingerprints strewn across the desert. Why would they deny something so obvious, when anyone who visited the bomb site would see the truth? But maybe that was the point. There was no declared war in Yemen. Out here, in the middle of the desert, no one was looking.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. Jeremy, you were at al-Majalah.

JEREMY SCAHILL: And, in fact, what I say right after that is that the one local journalist who had investigated the reporting—the bombing had disappeared.

You know, I mean, what I felt there when I was talking to those survivors is that the only Americans they will ever meet are cruise missiles, that took their—the lives of their family members. And, you know, being there with them and listening to this woman who had lost so many members of her family, and this tribal leader, Muqbal, who was there—he was spared from that attack only because he was running an errand that day, and he returned back to find his village completely blown up. And I talked to tribal leaders who went there within 24 hours of the strike, and they described a scene where livestock and humans—the flesh of livestock and humans was melted together, and they couldn’t determine if it was goats or sheep or human flesh, and they were trying to figure out how to even bury the dead. And, you know, we have video that’s extremely graphic of infants being pulled from rubble, you know, children. I mean, 21 children were killed in that attack, and 14 women. And they claimed it was an al-Qaeda strike, but then when the Yemeni Parliament went to investigate it, they determined that that was a total lie.

And why is it that the Obama administration has never had to publicly state why they killed 14 women and 21 children in the first strike that President Obama authorized? And, you know, cruise missiles are a devastating weapon, and cluster bombs, which are banned internationally—the United States is one of the only nations on earth that continues to use cluster bombs. These are like flying land mines that shred people into ground meat. That’s why the tribal leaders were saying, “We couldn’t tell if it was the flesh of goats or sheep or humans.” I mean, I’ve seen in Yugoslavia and elsewhere the aftermath of cluster bombs, but to use these on a Bedouin village—I mean, this White House should have to explain why that strike was in the interest of U.S. national security.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the White House’s response now, that Shaye should have had to serve out his full term. Also talk about President Obama’s phone call to the dictator, Saleh.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, in—well, what happened is that—you know, so, Shaye is convicted in this kangaroo court, and then, in February of 2011, the Saba News Agency, the official Yemen news agency, did a report saying that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dictator of Yemen, was going to pardon Abdulelah Haider Shaye. You have to understand, at the time, there were posters put up all throughout the Yemeni capital demanding his freedom. There was huge tribal pressure. The human rights organization HOOD, which was representing him—huge pressure. Rooj and other activists, other people in Yemen, there was massive pressure on that dictatorship to release him. Everyone knew it was a sham, and everyone in Yemen knows about the bombing of al-Majalah. It is—you see postcards with it at demonstrations, demanding accountability from the United States. And he’s the guy who exposed it, so people knew who he was.

So, Ali Abdullah Saleh is in a postion where it was becoming politically untenable to hold him in prison. He says he’s going to pardon him. The Yemeni news agency releases this. That day, he gets a phone call from the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: This is like a year ago.

JEREMY SCAHILL: This was in February of 2011. He gets a phone call from the White House, not from, you know, some undersecretary of who knows what, but from President Obama personally. And President Obama, according to the White House’s own read-out of that call, expresses concern about reports that they were going to release Abdulelah Haider Shaye. And just to give you a sense of what a client state Yemen was, the pardon then is ripped up, and he remained in prison then over the course of the next two years. And, in fact, the White House—President Hadi just left yesterday from Sana’a. He’s visiting the United States right now. Supposedly it was for medical reasons, but he’s now going to meet with President Obama. And I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what comes out of that. The White House is clearly very, very irked that Hadi released Abdulelah Haider Shaye.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the lawyer for one minute, to Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, who describes how Shaye was beaten and psychologically 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: That was Shaye’s attorney, Abdulrahman Barman. Rooj Alwazir, you just spoke with Barman. Can you talk about the conditions of Shaye’s release this week?

ROOJ ALWAZIR: Sure. Right now his health is deteriorating. He lost a massive amount of weight. But he’s in a better position. He’s with his family. He finally enjoyed his first iftar with his family and his kids. He’s hopeful that justice will still prevail, because, as he said—as soon as he was released, he said in a statement to his lawyers, “Although I am released, I am still not a free man. In the eyes of the political and national security, I am still a threat, and therefore I am not free.”

He has—he is under two years of house arrest and, after that, three years of a travel ban, not able to really—he still has no—he’s still not able to speak. He’s still not able to write. He’s not allowed to go anywhere without having security around him at all times. And this is all on the concept of him still—of him still being linked to al-Qaeda, with no evidence being supported or presented against him. So there’s still this idea that he is, you know, quote-unquote, “aiding the enemy” or part of al-Qaeda, with no evidence against him. So, although he’s part of—he’s out of jail, he still feels that he is imprisoned inside.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jeremy—


AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Rooj.

ROOJ ALWAZIR: So I just think that’s really important. Although this is a big victory that he has been released, I think that’s something that we really need to be focusing on, that although—that he’s never been given a proper trial, that due process was completely skipped, that it was completely a political decision based on no—with no legal basis, only outside interference by the Obama administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, put Shaye’s treatment in the context of how reporters are being dealt with today.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, look at this White House’s position on whistleblowers and on journalists. You had the seizure of the Associated Press phone records. You have record numbers of prosecutions and indictments under the Espionage Act. You have what I think amounts to a criminalization of independent reporting. This White House seems intent on having the only information that journalists have access to official leaks, when it is meant to make the White House look noble and saving the world for peace, freedom and democracy. And any independent reporting or talking to sources that are not official is frowned upon, and at times prosecuted.

There was a recent court decision that I think is very disturbing. James Risen of The New York Times has been ordered to testify against a source of his who was a whistleblower. You have Bradley Manning’s trial coming to conclusion. The charge against him of aiding the enemy boils down to an assertion that anyone who provides information on the Internet, that then can be read by a terrorist, is somehow aiding the enemy. They’re actually contending that Bradley Manning, in leaking the diplomatic cables, aided Osama bin Laden directly, because Osama bin Laden was reported to have read some of the WikiLeaks cables. If that charge sticks, it should be chilling not just for journalists, but for the public at large, in the day of social media, when everyone is a journalist of sorts.

So, this administration has been utterly shameful in its approach toward a free press, toward whistleblowers, and it fundamentally undermines the notion that we have a free press in a democratic society. The fact that they had a Yemeni journalist jailed in a Yemeni court and kept him in prison there and are now deeply concerned and upset that he’s been released speaks volumes about this administration’s attitude toward journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, before you go, I just wanted to ask you about a very significant Senate hearing that was held yesterday addressing the closing of Guantánamo Bay prison for the first time since 2009, when Obama made his first and failed concerted push to shutter the prison. One of those who testified was Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, which opposes closing Guantánamo. The topic of drones came up when he was questioned Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

SEN. TED CRUZ: It has been reported that president—under the Obama administration, approximately 395 people have been killed by drone strikes. Are you aware of any reasonable argument that it is somehow more protective of human rights, more protective of civil liberties, to fire a missile at someone from a drone and kill them than it would be to detain them and interrogate them, determine their guilt or innocence and determine what intelligence might be derived from that individual?

FRANK GAFFNEY: I’m probably not the best arbiter of what is humane. You have people on this panel who’ve spent a lot of their time dwelling on that. I kind of focus on national security. But just as a human being, I will tell you I think if you kill people, that typically is less humane than incarcerating them. Letting them—letting them starve to death is, in my judgment, less humane than feeding them involuntarily, if necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Frank Gaffney, Center for Security Policy, testifying at the Guantánamo Bay prison hearing yesterday in the Senate. Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, these—you know, Frank Gaffney is a notorious, discredited neocon. The fact that he was even testifying, you know, talks about the seriousness of that hearing. But let’s be clear here: The Republicans, during their administration, their sort of reign of terror, were Murder Incorporated, where torture was the official policy. They didn’t even—they didn’t pretend to act like it was some abomination that happened once in a while. They were killing people in massive numbers in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, all around the world. So the fact that these guys are now trying to say, “Well, the Obama administration, because he dismantled the interrogation program, is somehow less humane than we were,” is just a sick joke. I mean, the fact is that Obama continued many of the worst policies, on a counterterrorism level, that were built up under the Bush and Cheney administration. And these Republicans, they would love to be doing exactly what Obama is doing. They’re just attacking him because he’s Obama. But they love his so-called national security policy. At the end of the day, they’re being motivated more by their own partisan agenda. And it’s an attempt to argue—and it’s an insidious argument—that torture is actually a policy that the United States should fully embrace once again. That’s what they’re trying to do here. But they quietly love the Obama administration’s drone policy and counterterrorism policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are going to leave it there, and I want to thank you both for being with us. Rooj Alwazir, thank you for joining us, Yemeni-American activist, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. And Jeremy Scahill, producer and writer of the documentary film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. He’s also the author of the new book by the same name. Jeremy is national security correspondent for The Nation and also a correspondent for Democracy Now! His film Dirty Wars is still in theaters around the country, also available on demand on your cable network. It is an IFC film.

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