- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
News broke yesterday afternoon that, after a nearly three-year-long imprisonment, Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye had been released by the Yemeni government. Shaye’s work drew international attention in 2009 when he reported on a U.S. airstrike in the Yemeni village of al-Majalla that killed 41 civilians. He also conducted multiple interviews with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, have told journalists that Shaye facilitated AQAP attacks, but his accounts of his arrest detail press intimidation by the Yemeni government, then still headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned amid mass protests in November 2011. Shaye’s five-year prison sentence has drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Yemen-based Freedom Foundation.
The U.S. government is still concerned about Shaye. Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told FP this morning by email, "We are concerned and disappointed by the early release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai, who was sentenced by a Yemeni court to five years in prison for his involvement with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula." Meehan did not comment on whether the United States advocated against his release.
President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi first floated plans to release Shaye in May. We wrote at the time:
This is not the first time that Shaye’s release has been considered. In fact, soon after his 2011 trial, Shaye’s release seemed imminent. "We were waiting for the release of the pardon — it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day," Shaye’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, told Jeremy Scahill in his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. But that plan fell through after a Feb. 2 phone call between then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President Barack Obama, in which Obama "expressed concern over the release of [Shaye], who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP," according to a readout of the call released by the White House.
The White House’s position hasn’t changed in the ensuing two years. "We remain concerned about al-Shai’s potential early release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP by email on Wednesday….
In July 2010, the Yemeni government arrested and beat Shaye, and interrogators told him, "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking," according to Scahill’s account. Shaye was arrested a month later, beaten again, held in solitary confinement for 34 days without access to a lawyer, and then rushed through a trial on charges that included recruiting and propagandizing for AQAP and encouraging the assassination of President Saleh and his son. By the time Obama intervened in Shaye’s pardon in 2011, protesters had begun filling city streets calling for the end of Saleh’s three-decade presidency; Saleh resigned in November 2011, and since then his vice president, Hadi, has governed as part of what is slated to be a two-year period of reform and transition.
The U.S. government’s case against Shaye is unclear. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Craig in February 2012 that "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans," but did not elaborate. Before Shaye’s arrest, an U.S. intelligence official, who told Scahill that he "was persuaded that [Shaye] was an agent," discouraged journalists from working with Shaye on account of "’classified evidence’ indicat[ing] that Shaye was ‘cooperating’ with al Qaeda."
Scahill posted this picture of Shaye’s release to Twitter yesterday:
Can’t stop smiling at this pic of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, just after he was released from prison today: pic.twitter.com/cVKrq3qOz0
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) July 23, 2013
Scahill also reported that Shaye’s pardon comes on the condition that he not leave the Yemeni capital of Sanaa for the next two years — the remainder of his prison sentence — at which time his case will be reviewed.