“Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?” That was the question posed recently by our national security correspondent, Jeremy Scahill, on TheNation.com. It deserves a serious answer from the Obama administration.
Abdulelah Hader Shaye, Scahill reported, “had long been known as a brave, independent-minded journalist in Yemen” when in December 2009 he went to the village of al Majala to investigate the Yemeni government’s claim that it had conducted a successful airstrike on an Al Qaeda training camp there. What he found was evidence that contradicted both the Yemeni government’s account and credulous reports in US media outlets.
Among the victims of the strike, Shaye discovered, were fourteen women and twenty-one children. Not only that but the strike, it turned out, hadn’t been conducted by Yemen’s military at all. The telltale signs that it was a US operation were in the rubble: remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, which are not in Yemen’s arsenal, and some of which bore the label Made in the USA. The Pentagon would not comment on the strike, and the Yemeni government repeatedly denied US involvement. But Shaye’s conclusion that it was an American deed was later vindicated, Scahill notes, when WikiLeaks released a US cable that featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own Parliament about the US role.
Shaye’s courageous reporting made him a hero to Yemenis fed up with their corrupt government’s symbiotic relationship with the United States and the counterproductive battle against Islamic terrorism (see Scahill’s report from Yemen in the March 5/12 issue). But Shaye’s revelations also earned him the ire of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s faltering regime, and in July 2010 he was arrested and imprisoned, and told by an interrogator, “We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue,” according to his friend Kemal Sharaf. After his release, Shaye defied this warning, and spoke on Al Jazeera about his abduction. A month later he was arrested again, subjected to brutal conditions and then tried and sentenced in proceedings called “a complete farce” by a Western reporter, interviewed by Scahill, who observed the trial.
Journalists and critics of Saleh’s regime routinely found themselves convicted of trumped-up charges in his kangaroo courts, though he’d often pardon them in the end. He was set to pardon Shaye until he received a phone call from President Obama in February 2011 expressing concern about Shaye’s release because of his “association” with Al Qaeda. No one has provided credible evidence for this charge.
Given the facts of the case, you might think a government led by a former professor of constitutional law would express concern about due process and freedom of speech—but instead, an administration spokesperson, confronted with Scahill’s reporting by ABC News’s Jake Tapper on March 16, said, “We refer you to the Yemeni government for details on Shaye’s arrest, conviction and the status of his detention.” In light of Obama’s request that Shaye be denied a pardon, this response is hypocritical as well as shameful.
The hypocrisy doesn’t end there. While paying lip service to media freedom, this administration has undermined the rights of journalists, and the whistleblowers who aid them, whose work has sometimes cast the government in a negative light. There’s a pattern here that demands attention and protest—not just from journalists but from the public, which would be in the dark without them.