SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whom President Barack Obama once personally lobbied to have remain in jail, has been pardoned and released, fulfilling a months-old pledge from Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
It was unclear whether Hadi had told American authorities in advance when Shaye would be released, but the White House said in an email Wednesday that it was “concerned and disappointed” by his release before the expiration of his five-year prison term for associating with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Shaye’s ability to gain access to high-ranking, deeply reclusive al Qaida-linked figures earned him international attention, allowing him to report for a number of Western news outlets. But he earned the ire of U.S. and Yemeni authorities for his reporting that revealed that a December 2009 bombing in the village of Majalla in the southern province of Abyan was an American cruise-missile attack that killed dozens of civilians, including 14 women and 21 children,rather than a Yemeni airstrike on an al Qaida training camp, as originally claimed.
After those reports, he was arrested in 2010 and held for more than a month without seeing an attorney. A Yemeni court found Shaye guilty in 2011 of assisting al Qaida, and sentenced him to five years in jail after a trial that international human rights groups described as a sham.
The charges against Shaye provoked immediate controversy and were sharply condemned by local and international press freedom organizations, who cast his arrest as politically motivated. In a statement last August, the human rights group Amnesty International called Shaye’s detention “arbitrary” and urged that “the conviction be set aside and he should be released.”
Political pressure from activists and tribal leaders initially pushed Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, toward pardoning Shaye. But the opposition of the Obama administration convinced Saleh to abandon the plans. In February 2011, Obama personally raised the issue with Saleh in a phone call that the White House acknowledged in a statement. “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,” said the Feb. 2, 2011, statement, using an alternate spelling of Shaye’s name.
Hadi had said he planned to secure Shaye’s release, telling a group of journalists at a meeting with United Nations officials May 6 that he’d be released soon. But Yemeni officials said later that the release was delayed after U.S. officials objected.
As a condition of his release, Shaye will be prohibited from leaving Sanaa for two years. Nevertheless, many Yemeni journalists and local press freedom organizations responded to the news with jubilance, hailing Hadi’s actions and celebrating Shaye’s freedom.
Shaye’s release “is a victory for common values of media freedom, justice and human rights,” said a statement from the Freedom Foundation, a Sanaa-based press freedom organization headed by Yemeni journalist Khaled al Hammadi. “Especially since President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered the release of Shaye despite all the American pressures on him to keep him in prison.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron