SANAA, Yemen — From the moment Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison in 2011 for allegedly supporting al Qaida’s Yemen-based affiliate, his punishment has been controversial – and not just because it represented the jailing of a respected writer and the trial was widely condemned as a sham by groups such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
What irks many Yemenis, and free press advocates around the world, is that they believe Shaye remains in jail solely because of pressure from the administration of President Barack Obama.
Shaye repeated the claim in a letter that was made public Monday.
“It’s inaccurate to say the Americans imprisoned me because some of them defended and supported me and opposed my detention,” Shaye wrote, according to a translation of the letter that was published this week on the Yemen Times’ website. “Actually, the only person responsible for kidnapping and detaining me is Obama.”
The outcry over Shaye’s case is nothing new. But the drama surrounding it seems particularly relevant now, because it melds two of the issues that are swirling around the Obama administration: its targeted killings of suspected terrorists and the accusations of a general disregard for freedom of the press reflected in its aggressive hunt for the sources of government leaks.
Shaye gained fame and attention for his interviews with figures associated with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Before his arrest and imprisonment, he was best known for revealing, based on his own on-the-ground reporting, that a December 2009 bombing in the village of Majalla in southern Abyan province was not a Yemeni airstrike on an al Qaida training camp, as originally claimed, but an American sea-based missile strike on a Bedouin encampment that killed dozens of civilians, including 14 women and 21 children.
Shaye’s ability to garner rare access to leaders of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula aroused the suspicion of authorities, and he was arrested in August 2010. After being denied a lawyer and kept in solitary confinement for 34 days, he was taken before a court in late September that year and was charged a month later. His five-year sentence for “participating in an armed group and having links with al Qaida” was handed down in January 2011.
Local and international human rights groups cast his trial as a sham, leading many to claim that his arrest and conviction were politically motivated.
“There’s strong indications that the charges against Shaye are trumped up, and that he has been jailed for daring to speak up about U.S. collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen,” Amnesty International said in a 2011 statement.
“What this is really about is his reporting on Majalla and other issues,” said Abdulrahman Barman, Shaye’s lawyer. “That’s why America wants him in jail.”
Barman, along with most of Shaye’s other supporters, argues that it’s ultimately the American government that’s keeping his client in jail.
Shortly after Shaye was convicted, then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh was on the verge of pardoning him. Then came a call from Obama. According to the official White House account of the call on Feb. 2, 2011, “President Obama expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai, who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.” The White House release used an alternate spelling of Shaye’s name.
Nearly two and a half years later, Saleh’s successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, said he planned to secure Shaye’s release. Speaking with reporters May 6 during a meeting with United Nations officials, Hadi left listeners with the impression that Shaye would be freed before Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, which starts July 8.
Subsequent statements from Yemeni officials have walked back from Hadi’s assurances, while an official close to the president – who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly – blamed differences between Sanaa and the Obama administration for the uncertainty about Shaye’s release.
“We remain concerned about al-Shai’s potential early release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said in an email Friday.
Analysts of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claim that to this day, neither the Yemeni nor the American government has offered any substantive evidence to support the charges against Shaye.
"Several officials involved in the case have assured me that the evidence exists,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst and author of “The Last Refuge,” a recently released book on Yemen and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. “None have been able to explain why it hasn’t been presented."
Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. @adammbaron