Yemen's Shia dilemma

Sana'a, Yemen - In 2009, Yemeni security forces arrested four men for being Twelver Shias. Yemen's north is dominated by Zaydis, a sect of Shias very distinct from the Twelver Shias who are found in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.

Zaydis are theologically closer to Sunni Islam than they are to mainstream Twelver Shias and Yemen's president is himself a Zaydi. Sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East increased since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and the civil war that followed, getting worse after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al Hariri who was posthumously made into a Sunni symbol, as was Iraq's Saddam Hussein following his 2006 execution. Lebanese Hezbollah's 2006 defeat of the Israeli army and its increased influence in Lebanese politics provoked a campaign of sectarian agitation against it.

Fears were spread of spread of Shia Islam, a so-called Shia crescent, and of Shia Arabs as fifth columnists loyal to Iran. Dictators increased sectarian tensions for their own purposes and in Yemen, which was undergoing twin uprisings, President Ali Abdallah Saleh manipulated both Zeydi Shias and Wahabi Sunnis, as well as various tribes, in order to weaken opposition. In the north, Zeydi rebels known as "Houthis" for the family that led them, battled a brutal Yemeni army. In order to gain international assistance, Saleh falsely accused Iran and Hezbollah of supporting the Zeydis.

Saleh depended on American and Saudi aid, and he knew that Saudi paranoia of Iranian meddling would guarantee a money flow, just as the al-Qaeda boogey man would mean increased American money. US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks reveal that even the Saudis suspect Saleh is manipulating them.

Often innocent Yemenis have been the targets of these propaganda campaigns. While it is likely that President Saleh will eventually be ousted, the Yemeni regime with all its brutality is as much a part of the problem.

On July 13, 2009, Muamar al Abdali from Lahj was arrested. Muamar was a human rights activist whose organisation Himaya focused on freedom of thought and freeing detainees. It was not affiliated with any one sect. The government had rejected Himaya's permit.

In 2007 Muamar was arrested while sitting for his university exams and held for two and a half months because of his human rights activism. When he was released they told him "we are just pinching you in the ear", meaning he was being taught a lesson, or given a warning. After his release, he was often followed. And during religious gatherings he attended, there would be strangers in attendance who were suspected of monitoring his activities.

Muamar's greatest problems would come from his conversion to the Twlever interpretation of Shia Islam. I spoke to his wife Amat al Latif. Muamar was a Shafii Sunni originally but he converted to Shia Islam, she told me. Ten years ago, when they were engaged to be married, she decided to convert to Shiaism, too. Following conversations with him and reading of Shia religious books he gave her, she accepted the faith. Together, they also visited the Seyida Zeinab shrine in Syria.

In July of 2009 Muamar was in the southern city of Aden, heading to dinner with a friend, when he was arrested by National Security officers. A police officer who was Muamar's friend notified Amat of his arrest. That officer would be jailed for 14 days for revealing that to her. For the first four months of his arrest, Muamar's whereabouts were unknown. The day after Muamar was arrested, his deputy at Himaya, Sadiq Abdelrahman Asharafi was arrested. The organisation's office was raided and its computers and files were confiscated.

Raids and torture

Muamar was tortured those first four months, and suffered a heart attack. National Security officers took him to a hospital fearing he would die. After the first four months, he was transferred to the custody of the Political Security Forces. There, he was no longer physically tortured, his wife told me, only psychologically tortured. He spent two weeks in solitary confinement and in a cell with al-Qaeda members who fought with him.

"Now, he is in the political prison and he receives threats that al-Qaeda will kill him," Amat said. Muamar was attacked by al-Qaeda members in prison; and even though he was wounded he was punished and put in solitary confinement. Al-Qaeda suspects were given privileged treatment, his wife told me.

Muamar was accused of spreading the Shia sect in Yemen, and providing money and weapons to the Houthi rebels in in the north. "Any Twelver in Yemen is considered an agent of Iran," Amat told me, "this is the first accusation." Muamar had a library with Shia books from Iran and Kuwait. It had been open for one year with government permission.

"Afterwards we faced problems and difficulties because of the library, even though we had permission," Amat told me, "we had to close it." After they closed the library Amat brought the books to her house. Their home was raided by National Security.

"It was an inhuman raid," she said. "The children were in the house. They broke the furniture, they took 150 or 200 books, they were all Shia religious books published in Kuwait and Iran, not political books." They also confiscated the original authorisation for the library, but she had an additional copy. "When they took the books, I said the books run in our blood. They stepped on the books. They have tried to insult us by calling us spies and extremists."

"Twelvers face persecution from the government unlike other sects here like the Wahabis," Amat said. "Muamar demanded freedom of thought and religion. Even recently Zeydis started to conceal that they are Zeydis because they are being persecuted." Amat insisted that Muamar had never visited Iran and had never had any communication with Houthis.

Trials and imprisonment

Amat insisted that the men were on trial with no evidence brought against them except the confessions extracted under torture by the National Security forces. Their lawyers demanded that a forensic doctor examine the men to testify about the scars they bore from torture, but the judge refused.

Walid Sharafeddin was an accountant with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where he had worked for two years. On August 25, 2009, Walid was on the street next to a bank. At 11:30 AM, men in civilian clothes asked if he was Walid Sharafeddin and took him away. At 3 PM that day, his wife Alia Wazir's home was raided by men in civilian and military clothing. She knew at once Walid had been arrested because Muamar had recently been arrested.

Alia recalled:

They entered in an ugly way, a barbaric way - like they knew where to go. They asked me, 'where is Walid,' I said 'he is at work.' They showed me a permission to search the house but I couldn't read it. Two female policewomen searched me. They unplugged the phones so I couldn't call anyone. They asked me who my father was, where I work. They didn't let me move unless one of them was with me. They searched the house carefully, they took personal things belonging to Walid - passport, files. They took receipts for my gold jewelry.

As they were leaving after the search, the men told her that they indeed had Walid. Walid's two children were also present.

Ibrahim Sharaf Eddin, Walid's brother and lawyer, was in the apartment next door. About 30 armed men in civilian and military clothes raided Walid's apartment, Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim was not allowed to enter his brother's apartment. He demanded to see a warrant. A security officer waved a white paper at him, but he couldn't see what it said. After three hours the security men left. Later, when he was representing Walid he would see a copy of the warrant ordering Walid's house to be searched and accusing him of membership in an armed gang. "They left with sacks containing papers and his UNDP computer, his phones, CDs, not with guns and bombs," Ibrahim told me, "when they left they told my brother's wife, 'please forgive us we are just following orders and we have Walid.' She asked 'who are you' but they didn't respond."

Missing persons and no records

Abdallah Ali Adeilami was arrested in August 2009 in the Damar province, 100 kilometers away from Sanaa. He was married with two children. He taught Islamic Culture at the University of Damar and was a deputy headmaster at the Ali Abdel Mughni elementary school. Abdallah converted to the Twelver interpretation of Shia Islam in 1998. His wife was not a Twelver.

Abdallah was an acquaintance of Walid and Muamar but not a close friend. I spoke to his nephew Ali Muhamad Adeilami. On the night of his arrest National Security, Central Security and Political Security forces surrounded the neighbourhood and besieged it. They rang his doorbell and then broke down the door. "They violated the privacy of the house and the privacy of women," Ali said. "[They] broke furniture, took mobile phones from the men and women, they took his laptop and desktop, they took Shia CDs, pictures of (Hezbollah's) Hassan Nasrallah."

They put a sac on Abdallah's head. He asked them what was happening as they shook him roughly. "None of your business," he was told. He was held by Political Security for four months and 15 days. Then a neighbour who worked for Political Security was told to tell Abdallah's relatives that he was in their prison in Sanaa. "We didn't recognise him when we saw him," Ali told me, "he was very thin, his head was wrapped with gauze. We asked him 'whats wrong with you?' He said he knocked his head against the wall. There was a policeman sitting next to him. I asked him if he was tortured. He nodded his head but the policeman saw it and ended the visit.

Abdallah was examined by a doctor from Political Security who said the scars were received before his arrest. "Did we torture him at home?" Ali demanded from a Political Security officer. He was told to sit down. "I said shame on you and they expelled me from the court."

Abdallah was charged with spreading the Twelver intrepretation of Shia Islam and giving speeches. Walid and Muamar were accused of sending $700 to Abdallah to give to poor people. "Twelvers are persecuted here," said Ali, "the government wants to kill them all. They treat them differently in prisons. They treat al-Qaeda prisoners better than they treat Twelvers."

Walid's wife Alia went to the prosecutor general's office and was sent to the appeals office who sent her to the criminal investigation office because their claim was about a missing person. Ibrahim went to the criminal investigation office:

They were supposed to record my complaint in their records- it didn't happen. Instead of doing that he kept asking me what happened and asked me about the people who came, what did they look like, their cars, I described it to him. He said what did your brother do. I said you're a judge you cant ask me this. You're supposed to tell me what my brother did. At least you're supposed to tell us where he is. He said you want the truth? I cant do anything for you.

Alia went to the ministry of interior. The family published letters in newspapers addressed to the prosecutor general's office, the ministry of justice and National and Political Security. Political Security and National Security denied they had Walid. At the same time the family held demonstration in front of the parliament, the minister's council, in front of the prosecutor's office. "Our slogans were these people are forcibly disappeared and security is supposed to protect citizens. And if a person committed a crime he is supposed to be taken to court through legal steps." The family demonstrated every day.

In November of 2009, an official from the Political Security Forces told Alia that Walid was in their custody and had been transferred from National Security. Three days later, the family went to visit him. "When I saw him he looked like he was high on drugs," Ibrahim told me, "he had no concentration, he was very thin, he had lost a lot of weight." Walid immediately asked his wife and mother how they were because his interrogators had threatened that they would bring his female relatives in for investigation.

"They threatened him with dirty means," Ibrahim said, "we saw bloody marks from handcuffs. We later found out that he was tied from behind and his hands were pulled up. The first time it was for two hours. The second time it was all night long. He was beaten by sticks, slaps and insulted." Security officers were present during their visits to Walid.

There were many court appearances, but the men were not allowed to defend themselves. Their lawyer Ibrahim Sharaffedin, Walid's brother, resigned because whenever he tried to speak, the prosecutor would say "oos!" a rude sound meaning "shut up," and the judge did nothing in response. "Shut up or we know how to shut you up," the prosecutor said, which the lawyer interpreted as a threat. Female relatives attended some of the trials but were prevented from entering the court at times. "These trials are a play in front of public opinion," Muamar's wife Amat told me.

The men were accused of working for Iran and the Houthis. "The court that will accept his trial would be clearly a court following the regime. And the people who kidnapped him should be taken to trial," Ibrahim said. His overtures to legal officials were met with contempt. Ibrahim objected to the investigation because his brother was being illegally detained. Instead of telling Walid what he was charged with, the investigators asked him what his relationship with Iran was.

Ibrahim demanded to know the charges. Walid was charged with belonging to an armed gang and communicating illegally with a foreign country. Contrary to standard procedures, the charges contained no details of specific actions taken. Instead, the charges were statements he made under torture while still in National Security detention. Ibrahim objected but was overruled and told to shut up by a judge named Rajih Hneish, or he would be expelled. Walid claimed he had been forced to put his thumb print on statements the security officers had prepared.

'All trials like this'

Political Security was not a place for punishment or pre-trial detention, Ibrahim explained. There was a separate prison for pre-trial detention. Moreover no evidence was provided. "The evidence they used was just papers, financial accounts," Ibrahim said, "they said it included amounts of money that they claimed he received from the Iranian cultural attaché, about $143,000 and it included where they claim it was spent. The charge was receiving that amount of money to pursue Iranian political projects in Yemen and to support the Houthis. The law is anybody who illegally contacts a foreign country or works for a foreign country's benefit in harming the status of the country, militarily, diplomatically or economically can be sentenced to death."

The first judge the four men saw was called Muhsin Alwan. In the first trial before any evidence was even presented he told the four accused men that they were spies. Ibrahim objected to a doctor from Political Security examining the men for signs of torture because Political Security was illegally detaining the men. The judge overruled his objection. The prosecutor threatened Ibrahim.

Sadiq and Muamar responded by telling judge Radwan Annamer that he belonged to Political Security and they condemned the lack of judicial independence. Annamer ordered them placed in solitary confinement for fifteen days as a result. Ibrahim objected that solitary confinement was only permitted when the detainee could harm others.

"I resigned, I said the court is not decent. No matter how weak the evidence this isn't a problem for the court to find a person guilty. We were not even allowed to copy paper, except for the charges and the list of evidence. The sentence was ready the day the case was taken to the prosecution and they tried him already in the national security and he is serving his time in political security and this trial is just something for public opinion because we brought this subject into the media. They want to justify war in Saada. Salafi elements have authority and power. These four are just a ploy for the regime to prove that Iran supports the Houthis.

In May of 2010, President Saleh announced a general amnesty for Houthis and all people detainees from the Saada war in north Yemen were supposed to be freed. The judge in the case of the four Twelver men said that they faced two charges. The first was for membership in an armed gang belonging to the Houthis and the second was being intelligence agents for a foreign country. The amnesty applied to the first charge but not the second charge.

Ali al Asimi was the lawyer for Sadiq, Muamar and Abdallah. "There are serious violations taking place here," he said, referring to Yemen, "as a defense team we have stopped dealing with the court. There is no benefit from attending and going.

The presence of the lawyer is just symbolic, the lawyer has no rights. He can't even copy files of case, even some papers are being taken away from the files so the lawyers won't see. Our presence is like analysts for the sentences. They just tell the lawyers the charges and don't let lawyers see the rest of the file. Some evidence they allow them to see and others they don't let them see. But in the end there is no real evidence, most of it is confession taken under torture. They were tortured in the National Security. So the criminal court relies on these confessions and it's a big problem."

Ibrahim's outrage about his brother's persecution was raw. "People were kidnapped for four months and he will be tried instead of those who kidnapped him?" he asked me, "the trial is not decent because of the procedures, the torture. If the trial was honest it should talk about the procedures. Its all illegal according to Yemeni law and constitution. All trials are like this."

Nir Rosen is an American journalist who writes on current and international affairs. He has contributed to The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, among others. His latest book is Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.