Yemeni journalist held incommunicado ‘appears before prosecutor’

Amnesty International has again expressed its concern for a Yemeni journalist and government critic held incommunicado by the authorities since September, after fellow journalists said he appeared before a prosecutor in the capital Sana’a on Monday.

Yemeni journalists told Amnesty International that Muhammad al-Maqalih appeared before a prosecutor for the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), whose proceedings have been reported to fall short of international fair trial standards.

He was reportedly not allowed a lawyer during his interrogation and it is not known what charges he faces or when his trial is to begin.

A member of the Yemeni Socialist Party and the former editor of its website, Muhammad al-Maqalih is thought to have been detained for his comments on the government’s conduct in its conflict with followers of the late Zaidi Shi’a cleric Hussein al-Huthi in the northern region of  Sa’da.

Human rights activists in Yemen suspect his detention is linked, in particular, to his criticism of the army’s killing of civilians in Sa’da, which was published on the Socialist Party’s website.

Amnesty International said it believes that he is likely to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. If so, the organization demands that he be released immediately and unconditionally.

Muhammad al-Maqalih was abducted on a street in Sana’a on 17 September 2009 by men believed to be from the security forces. Eyewitnesses said that he was taken by a group of plain-clothed men who arrived in a white minibus which had its licence plates obscured.

Since his detention, Muhammad al-Maqalih’s family has staged a number of sit-in protests outside government offices, which have been attended by journalists and the general public.

Amnesty International wrote to Yemen’s Minister of Defence on 21 October 2009 asking where the journalist was being detained, and raising concerns that he had been detained incommunicado since he was seized, that he was at risk of torture or other ill-treatment and may have been subjected to enforced disappearance.

The Minister of Information acknowledged in December 2009 that Muhammad al-Maqalih was being detained by the state.

However, the Yemeni authorities have since refused to disclose his whereabouts and legal status or allow him access to his family or lawyer.

Critics and opponents of the state in Yemen are often at risk of arrest and detention, particularly at times of political crisis.

Although the SCC follows regular Yemeni criminal procedures, defence lawyers say its judges are not impartial and do not allow them to mount an effective defence; they say that their right to prepare a defence is hindered by restrictions that are placed on their access to their clients’ case files and that when they challenge procedural irregularities by the court these are routinely ignored.

Yemen’s Sa’da region, whose inhabitants are predominantly members of the country’s Zaidi Shi’a minority, has experienced several periods of conflict in recent years. There have been recurrent armed clashes between government security forces and followers of Hussein al-Huthi, who was killed by government forces in 2004.

The latest rise in violence began in mid-August 2009, when the area was placed under a virtual state of emergency and government forces mounted an escalating series of attacks.