Last month, as Yemen hosted the Sana’a Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Role of the International Criminal Court—the first such event in a country long wracked by internal strife and despotism—the Bush administration was undoubtedly keeping a watchful eye. With Afghanistan and Iraq inching slowly towards reform, Libya apparently coming clean about its WMD program, and Syria and Iran under increasing U.S. pressure, the Yemeni government’s talk of democracy appeared to be another step toward the fulfillment of President Bush’s vision of a free Middle East. But in Yemen, as in most Middle Eastern countries, there is a fine line between rhetoric and reality.
In late November, Yemeni authorities admitted that Saddam Hussein’s wife, Sajida Kheirallah Telfah, and daughter, Hala, along with the wives of several senior Iraqi officials, were offered free government housing in Sana’a by the Yemeni government prior to the fall of Baghdad. This revelation set a dubious precedent for the Sana’a Conference, sponsored by the Republic of Yemen in partnership with the European Union, Canada, the United Nations Development Program and No Peace Without Justice, a self-described “international committee of parliamentarians, mayors and citizens, whose objective is the establishment of an effective system of international justice.” The conference attracted 820 delegates from 52 countries, all of whom pledged to fight for human rights, independent media, privatization, cultural and religious diversity and the establishment of elected legislative bodies in Arab and Muslim countries. But if these goals sound as if they were lifted straight from President Bush’s Middle East playbook, the totalitarian backdrop against which they were declared provided a stark contrast.
While Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh won 96 percent of his country’s popular vote in 1999 (on par with other distinguished statesmen in the region like Bashar Al-Assad and Hosni Mubarak), he owed his victory in large part to Yemen’s opposition parties, many of which boycotted the election due to Saleh’s underhanded tactics. Saleh, who in true democratic fashion, recently announced that he would be extending his current 25-year reign beyond 2010, subsequently decided to postpone elections altogether until further notice. “Most dissidents in Yemen get killed by car bombs,” says Jamal Numan, an activist and a former Minister Plenipotentiary at the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, DC. “Saleh’s regime is considered one of the most corrupted regimes. And it starts from the very top.” According to Numan, all independent media outlets in Yemen have been shut down during the last few years as a part of Saleh’s “democratic” reforms. Consequently, he says, “[Saleh] has been portrayed by his media as a cult of personality, like Kim Jong-Il of North Korea.”
Nevertheless, Saleh used his platform at the Sana’a Conference to promote democracy as “the life raft for Arab regimes and Third World countries,” and call attention to what he views as the ongoing illegal occupations of Arab land by both the U.S. and Israel. Saleh, in turn, was regarded by his counterparts at Sana’a as a quintessential reformer, one committed to sweeping change.
They must not have consulted with Munir Al-Mawari.
Earlier this month, Al-Mawari, a journalist and native of Yemen, was invited to the Sana’a conference by the Yemeni Information Center in London only to have his invitation rescinded the same day. The Information Center had apparently been informed of Al-Mawari’s scandalous past, which included, of all things, an October 2002 article titled “Yes to Liberating Iraq.” As if calling for Saddam Hussein’s ouster wasn’t bad enough, after offering the piece to several Arab newspapers without luck, Al-Mawari wound up publishing it on the website of Yediot Ahronot—an Israeli daily. This was too much to bear for Saleh and Yemen’s other purported champions of free speech, who banned Al-Mawari from the Sana’a human rights conference for advocating, well, human rights.
“There is no free media in Yemen,” says Nasser Almutairi, a veteran Yemeni journalist and author who previously worked for the BBC. “Saleh says what he doesn’t do. He talks about democracy but he doesn’t believe in democracy. He is supposed to be fighting terrorism and yet he supports terrorism. He misleads his people and the world.”
Al-Mawari may have been left off the Sana’a Conference’s list of invitees, but the organizers had no problem including Nabih Berri, the Speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament and former leader of that country’s notorious Amal terrorist movement. In June 1985, a group of Sh’ia radicals loyal to Berri hijacked TWA flight 847 from Greece and forced it to land at Beirut Airport. One passenger, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stetham, was murdered on board. Berri directed such acts while also playing a Vichy-like role in facilitating the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Needless to say, his record on human rights falls far short of exemplary.
While the Yemeni government has, for the most part, cooperated with the United States in the War on Terror, even allowing U.S. intelligence to conduct deadly operations against al-Qaeda members in Yemen, Numan maintains that Saleh “provides Hamas, Hizbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad with logistic and financial support.” Bordering Saudi Arabia to the south, Yemen is viewed by intelligence officials as a likely hiding place for several Al-Qaeda operatives. It has witnessed deadly acts of terrorism in the past, most notably the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded 39. Moreover, in late 2002, U.S. and Spanish naval forces in the Indian Ocean seized a shipment of 15 Scud missiles bound for Yemen from North Korea, only to allow the Yemeni government to take possession of them.
These incidents, combined with a continuing lack of freedom for not only the press, but also for average Yemeni citizens (for instance, those born of Yemeni fathers and non-Yemeni mothers— especially black Africans—cannot hold certain positions in the government or police and military) made Yemen a bizarre choice to host a conference focused on democracy and human rights. It was no coincidence that the event’s opening ceremonies began with Yemen’s Prime Minister, Abdul Qadar Bajammal, telling arriving foreign dignitaries, “The world would be a better place without the United States.” In spite of its noble rhetoric, the Sana’a Conference featured something with which Yemenis living under the rule of Ali Adbullah Saleh are all too familiar: a façade of freedom.