Yemen: new security alert, old human rights lessons

If the alleged would-be Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was indeed “trained” by al-Qai’da in Yemen it’s not exactly surprising that Yemen is now on everyone’s lips.

But how to react? Closing embassies and talking about Yemen’s need to “curb” the threat is all very well. In fact, probably necessary. The problem, though, is if Yemen takes this heightened international concern as a green light to crack down on “dissidents”.

Because the unpalatable truth is that Yemen has already been doing this, with something of a vengeance. In recent years hundreds of people in Yemen have been jailed, with or without trials, and the Yemeni security forces have reportedly extra-judicially executed people. Those the Yemeni authorities accuse of involvement with al-Qai’da have been given unfair trials before the country’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court. And there are reports that people thrown into jail have being tortured into making false confessions and their lawyers then denied documents when trying to mount a proper defence.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s targeting of journalists continues apace. Amnesty has previously raised the alarm over Yemen’s independent journos being under near-constant threat (we gave a media award to one such reporter, Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, in 2008).

The latest case to worry us is Muhammad al-Maqalih. He was abducted by plain-clothed members of Yemen’s security forces in October. Like Al-Khaiwani and many Yemeni journalists before him, Al-Maqalih’s “crime” seems to have been to criticise the Yemeni government for its conduct in dealing with violence in the north of the country (more info here). Three months on there’s still no firm word on Al-Maqalih’s whereabouts but it looks as if he’s being held in secret detention in a Ministry of Defence prison.

Being thought an “outspoken” journalist in Yemen apparently makes you fair game to the Yemeni security apparatus. Similarly, being suspected of involvement in terrorism means you’re almost certainly going to face an unfair trial, possibly torture, and very likely a long prison sentence.

The point is simple enough. While Brown, Obama et al are right to worry about a new wave of suicide bombers emerging in Yemen, they’re totally wrong if they think overlooking Yemen’s human rights record would be a price worth paying for “cracking down” on this threat.

Basically, it’s the same old equation: we’re not going to all end up safer if human rights are sacrificed at the altar of countering terrorism. Probably the reverse. Isn’t this one of the lessons of 9/11?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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