Protest in Yemen against harassment of journalists

The protest came after it was reported last week that state security had begun interrogating a journalist, who was said to have been brutally tortured.

SANA'A // Dozens of Yemeni journalists, civil-society activists and members of parliament protested yesterday in front of the attorney general's office in Sana'a against increasing harassment of journalists. The protesters demanded the release of Mohammed al Makaleh, an opposition journalist and political activist who was kidnapped on September 17. The authorities first said they were not holding al Makaleh in prison, but last month admitted he was in custody.

The protest came after it was reported last week that state security had begun interrogating al Makaleh, who was said to have been tortured brutally. Marwan Damaj, secretary general of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, a non-governmental organisation, attended the interrogation and described the condition of the journalist as terrible. "When I saw him, he was pale and seems to suffer some psychological and physical problems. He said he was tortured and he went through faked executions several times."

Mr Damaj said that al Makaleh, the editor of al Eshteraki, the news website of the opposition Socialist Party, told him he was kidnapped by more than 20 armed people and was beaten. "He told me he was kept in an old house thought to be outside the capital where guns were pointed at his head for 20 days. He went on a hunger strike for 16 days in protest against his torture," Mr Damaj said. Charges against al Makaleh include publishing articles on the fight between the government and al Houthi rebels in the north as well as having contact with the Houthis.

In a statement, the protesters said they were worried about increasing intimidation of media professionals. "We affirm that the kidnappings, disappearance and torture as well as repressive arrests of a number of journalists represent a serious escalation in the harassment of the press. These violations are serious and the government has to respect its commitment to respecting media freedom," the statement read.

In addition to demanding that the attorney general investigate the kidnapping and torture of al Makaleh, the protesters expressed concerns over the life of the jailed journalist Hisham Basharaheel, the editor of Al Ayyam, an independent daily newspaper based in Aden. Basharaheel, whose newspaper was closed down in February 2009 because of reporting on unrest in the south, was arrested on January 6 at his office in the southern port city. Bashareheel, who has heart problems, was not allowed to be transferred to a hospital, it was reported.

The protesters also said that journalists Salah al Sakladi, Fuad Rashid and Ahmed al Rubaizi, who were arrested at different times last year for writing about southern unrest, went on a hunger strike in protest against the refusal of their transfer to a police jail from a jail operated by the intelligence agency. The Yemeni Committee to Protect Freedom of Opinion and Expression, a local non-governmental organisation, said it documented more than 140 press freedom violations in 2009, including death threats, assaults, smear campaigns against critical journalists, prosecutions in the new Press and Publications Court, and a government decision to simultaneously ban eight newspapers.

Abdulkareem al Iryani, a presidential adviser, said yesterday that the government had set a timetable for the rebels to implement the government's terms for a ceasefire in the six-year-old conflict in the northern province of Sa'ada. "If they agree to it and sign it, the war will end immediately," he said. The rebels offered last month to accept the five conditions originally set by the government for a ceasefire. These conditions include removing checkpoints, ending banditry, handing over all captured military equipment, and releasing government troops and officials.

But the government rejected the offer, saying the rebels also needed to accept a sixth key condition, a promise to stop attacking Saudi territory, which the rebels accepted.