A Yemeni journalist who was kept in prison at the personal insistence of President Barack Obama was freed Tuesday.
Abdulilah Shaye was known for his hard-hitting coverage of the U.S. war against al-Qaida in Yemen; in 2009 he reported that a strike against al-Qaida attributed to the Yemeni air force was conducted by the U.S., killing 35 women and children.
Shaye, who used his family ties to gain interviews with high-ranking terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki, was arrested the year after for allegedly aiding the militant Islamist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP.)
But the arrest was widely viewed as politically-motivated, and following local outrage and condemnation from human rights groups, he was on the verge of release in February 2011. However, after Obama called Yemen’s then-president, Abdullah Saleh, to express concern about the case, Shaye was kept behind bars. In a letter Shaye wrote to the Yemen Times the freelance journalist directly blamed Obama for his continued imprisonment.
After Shaye was pardoned by Yemen’s new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the White House said it was “concerned and disappointed” by his early release.
But some are skeptical he was ever guilty of aiding terrorists.
Charles Schmitz, a Yemen specialist at Towson University, told The Daily Caller “we will probably never know” the actual substance of the charges against Shaye, which have not been revealed to the public.
“U.S. officials insist that there was solid evidence, but U.S. officials have little credibility because they have repeatedly lied about events in Yemen, particularly the U.S. role in events in Yemen,” he said.
The “air strike” Shaye reported on in 2009 was later revealed to have indeed been a U.S. drone attack: in Wikileaks cables, President Saleh assured General David Petraeus, “we’ll continue to say the bombs are ours, not yours.”
It’s not the first time the Obama administration’s strategy for fighting al-Qaida in Yemen has come under fire.
Middle East expert Stephen McInerney, while acknowledging recent progress, told TheDC that the administration’s “overall approach to Yemen has been too dominated by short-term counterterrorism efforts,” with little support for political and economic reform.
And the security situation does seem likely to improve thanks to an al-Qaida counteroffensive emerging in the south of the country, said Yemen scholar Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute.
“The U.S. does conduct direct action operations in Yemen, and has degraded AQAP’s leadership, but the overall impact will remain limited if the group continues to operate there,” she said.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Obama administration is already planning on moving CIA bases from Afghanistan to Yemen. In the troubled country — the Arab world’s poorest — “al-Qaida affiliates are already seen as more dangerous than the network’s base,” The Washington Post reports.
UPDATE: Amnesty International has demanded an investigation into the 2009 drone attack which allegedly led to Shaye’s imprisonment, the Yemen Post reports:
“Abdul Ilah Haydar Shaye appeared to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for his legitimate work as a journalist,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Having released him, the Yemeni authorities must now conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the 2009 attack which he helped expose.”