Prominent Yemeni Journalist Lands in Jail; US Wants him to Stay There

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Marco Werman: Now to Yemen and another Al Qaeda related story. Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye developed a reputation for landing interviews with high ranking Islamic militants. He travelled in Yemen where others couldn't. In 2009 he uncovered the US role in a drone strike that took the lives of more than a dozen women and children in a southern Yemeni province. But in 2010 Shaye was arrested. Yemeni officials eventually concluded that he was an Al Qaeda operative and sentenced him to prison. He's still in jail and the US wants him to stay there. Many human rights groups have cried foul and asked to see the evidence linking Shaye to terrorist activities. Reporter Jeremy Scahill has been looking into the case.

Jeremy Scahill: Abdulelah Haider Shaye, this journalist, was perhaps the most prominent journalist in Yemen covering Al Qaeda on the ground. He was interviewing prominent Al Qaeda figures. He was travelling to the scene of some of these US bombings. And he also had interviewed a number of times Anwar al-Awlaki. And so in December of 2009, when President Obama first authorized this US strike in Yemen, Abdulelah Haider Shaye was one of the first journalists to make it to the scene. And he found evidence of US cruise missile parts and cluster bombs that did not exist in the Yemeni government arsenal. And the Yemeni government was taking credit for what it said was a strike against an Al Qaeda camp. Well, what this Yemeni journalist did by taking pictures and then giving them to Amnesty International and to very prominent US and international news organizations was to sort of give lie to the claims being made by the Yemeni government. And he began to allege at his reports that it was in fact a US strike.

Werman: So then in 2010 Yemeni authorities arrested Shaye, and in 2011 he was convicted of terrorism related charges and sentenced to five years in prison. Now Yemen's former leader president Ali Abdullah Saleh had prepared a pardon for Shaye, but the Yemeni leader discussed Shaye's case last year with President Obama. What was the White House's position and what happened then?

Scahill: President Obama personally called Ali Abdullah Saleh and told him that the US was very concerned about the possible release of Abdulelah Haider Shaye. And I am told by lawyers for Abdulelah Haider Shaye and tribal leaders in Yemen — in fact, a Yemeni government official also confirmed this for me that President Saleh rescinded his pardon explicitly because of the call from President Obama. He didn't want to offend President Obama and wanted to continue receiving counter-terrorism funding from the White House, and felt that they might not get it if they released this man that the White House said was an Al Qaeda figure.

Werman: A Yemeni court accused Shaya of being a media man for Al Qaeda in Yemen and providing Al Qaeda with material support. What was the proof?

Scahill: The evidence, if you can put it that way that they presented in court included some of his interviews with Al Qaeda figures. And they essentially said just by interviewing these figures or interviewing Anwar al-Awlaki you are a propagandist for them. They also introduced into evidence what they claimed were communications between Abdulelah Haider Shaye and Al Qaeda figures saying that he had provided them with photographs of foreign embassies that they could attack, and that he essentially was a media man for Al Qaeda. His legal team and all major human rights and media rights groups in Yemen alleged that the evidence was fabricated.

Werman: Jeremy how do you know that you have the full story on Abdulelah Haider Shaye? I mean that he is indeed just a journalist? I mean why for example could he get access to Al Qaeda figures when other journalists couldn't?

Scahill: Obviously any journalist that says they have the entire story is lying. I don't pretend that I have the entire story. What I do have is a trust in journalists in Yemen that I worked with for many years who know him personally, and the fact that the Yemeni government officials and other people close to the Yemeni government told me that they were just trying to teach him a lesson basically, and that it went this far because of President Obama. Look, I think from what's publicly available about Abdulaleh Haider Shaye, means that myself and other journalists who interview Al Qaeda figures or travel to Al Qaeda areas and report on US attacks in these areas, that we're also enabling Al Qaeda. And so in this case of this journalist his real crime seems to be interviewing people that the United States considers to be terrorists and considers to be people that should be taken out in drone strikes or snatched and put in a military prison somewhere. What we have to remember at the end of the day is that most of the journalists that are able to interview these figures are not famous American journalists who anyone in the world could care about. And that's why people like myself and other journalists who maybe have a bit of a higher profile or just happen to be born in the United States should speak up for them, because we depend on them to get this reporting. It should not be a crime to interview the enemy. And that's what I think is happening here. I think the US wanted to stop him from doing these interviews with people whose voice they wanted silenced. Maybe they want them silenced with good reason, but then you don't go after the journalists who are interviewing them.

Werman: Jeremy Scahill has been investigating the case of detained Yemeni journalist, Abdulaleh Haider Shaye for the Nation Magazine. Jeremy, thank you very much.

Scahill: Thank you.

Werman: We asked the State Department to comment on Jeremy Scahill's investigation. They sent us a statement saying Shaye's imprisonment had nothing to do with his journalism. It said "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its planning for attacks on Americans." The full State Department statement is at