Amnesty International has called on the Yemeni authorities to set aside a three month prison sentence imposed on a woman journalist after she was convicted of defaming President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh.
According to media reports, Anissa ‘Uthman, a journalist working for al-Wassat, a weekly newspaper, was prosecuted because of articles she wrote criticizing the arrest and imprisonment of human rights activists.
“The action taken against Anissa ‘Uthman appears to reflect growing government intolerance of media and other peaceful criticism of the authorities, including human rights violations committed in the conflict in Sa’da Governorate and in response to ongoing protests in the south,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Anissa ‘Uthman is reported to have been sentenced to imprisonment last Saturday when she was tried in her absence by a press court in Sana’a recently established to try media-related cases. The court began operating in June 2009 and is apparently working its way through around 150 cases.
She is now feared to be at imminent risk of imprisonment although the court verdict and sentence are still subject to appeal.
The editor and proprietor of al-Wassat was also tried in the case and appeared before the court. He was convicted and fined.
“If Anissa ‘Uthman were now to be imprisoned solely because of her peaceful criticism of the government, she would be a prisoner of conscience,” said Malcolm Smart. “If so, we would demand her immediate and unconditional release.”
Other Yemeni journalists are currently being detained.
Hisham Bashraheel, the editor of the al-Ayyam newspaper, was arrested earlier this month together with two of his sons. All three are still in detention. It is feared that they could be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
They were detained when they took part in a sit-in protest on 4 January at al-Ayyam’s offices in the southern city of Aden. The sit-in was held to protest the decision of the authorities eight months earlier effectively to ban the newspaper from printing and distributing copies.
Meanwhile, there is growing concern about the safety of Muhammad al-Maqalih, a journalist and editor of the Yemeni Socialist Party’s website (http://www.aleshteraki.net), who has not been seen since he was seized on 17 September 2009 from a street in Sana’a. He was taken away by a group of men who arrived in an unmarked white minibus and are believed to have been state security officials. The authorities have given no reason for the arrest of Muhammad al-Maqalih but he had previously criticized killings of civilians in Sa’da by the army. In December, the Minister of Information acknowledged that he was being detained but disclosed no other details.
These latest actions against the media come as government forces are increasingly immersed in fighting in Sa’da against armed followers of the late Zaidi Shi’a cleric Hussain Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and there are continuing protests in the south of the country against alleged discrimination and in favour of separatism.
At the same time, reports that a man who allegedly attempted to bomb an airplane near Detroit in the USA had been trained in Yemen has focused international attention on members or supporters of al-Qa’ida and the threat of terrorism.
Defamation is a criminal offence under the Press and Publication Law (23 December 1990) and the Penal Code (Law 12 of 1994) and is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of 4,000 Yemeni Riyals (about US$ 20). The offence is vaguely defined and can readily be used to prosecute and imprison peaceful critics of the government.