SANAA, Yemen — A Yemen court sentenced a journalist accused of being a “media man” for Al Qaeda to five years in prison Tuesday for allegedly collaborating with the global militant group and its leaders inside the country.
Abdulelah Shaye, 34, who works for the state-run Saba news agency, was found guilty of “participating in an armed gang, having links to Al Qaeda and for taking photographs of Yemen security bases and foreign embassies to be targeted by the terrorist organization.”
But human rights group said Shaye is the victim of a dubious judicial system and has been convicted for criticizing Yemeni security agencies.
Abdul Rahman Berman, Shaye’s lawyer and a member of Hood, a Sanaa-based human rights group, said he chose not to defend him in court on Tuesday.
“Nothing will be changed with a lawyer, because this is what they planned to do from six months ago. We’re giving a message to the world through this case that our judiciary system is run by the national and political security,” Berman said.
Reporters Without Borders, which recently released the 2010 Press Freedom Index that ranked Yemen 170 out of 178 countries, condemned the trial and called for Shaye’s release.
“The Yemeni authorities have used the pretext of combating terrorism to convict a journalist who is an expert on issues related to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and whose reporting tended to question the government’s security policies,” the group said.
The verdict, delivered to a court specializing in terrorism cases in the capital Sanaa, claimed that Shaye helped circulate Al Qaeda communiques and wrote for its online magazine, Sada al-Malahem (Echo of the Battles).
"He used his work as a journalist to publicize the views of Al Qaeda,” said the judge, Ridwan al Namer. “This is not journalism."
Speaking from behind a steel mesh inside his cell, Shaye told reporters he had simply been pursuing his career as a journalist and denied supporting Al Qaeda in any way.
"This is fabrication by the authorities that is unfounded and untrue," he said.
Kept in solitary confinement in an intelligence agency detention center in Sanaa since his arrest last August, Shaye has refused to attend several recent hearings, and continues to dispute the court’s legality.
"I am not before a court but the intelligence services,” he said, beckoning at the row of prosecutors as his verdict was read out. “This is a political court.”
Shaye, who specialized as a terrorism and Al Qaeda expert, has made numerous appearances in international media and is often described as having a close relationship with Al Qaeda.
In early 2009, he conducted an exclusive interview with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric on the loose in Yemen who has been accused of inspiring terrorist attacks against the United States. The satellite news channel Al Jazeera later broadcasted the footage. He is also alleged to have met with Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Pensinula.
The prosecution had previously accused Shaye of working as a media adviser to Awlaki, who was sentenced in absentia on Monday to 10 years in jail for inciting the killing of foreigners in Yemen.
During the verdict, skirmishes broke out outside the court as Yemeni security officials tried to prevent a group of Yemeni journalists and human rights activists from protesting against the sentence.
“They [the government] did this to him specifically because he irritated them, he revealed the truth about Al Qaeda and he criticized their security policies,” Shaye’s brother, Kaled Hayder, told GlobalPost.