Yemen to cartoonist: ‘We can squash you’

Exposing crimes of Yemen’s president and the US military is a dangerous game, one cartoonist learns.

The US military has been accused of killing civilians in its anti-terrorism campaign in Yemen [GALLO/GETTY]

As the Yemeni standoff continues, dictatorial president Ali Abdallah Saleh stubbornly clings to the seat of power.

If indeed the country descends into civil war it will be among the elites competing for power rather than the people against the government, though civil war is not inevitable. As in Egypt, the Yemeni regime is more complicated than just Saleh himself. It is a vast security apparatus linked to a small clique which controls the country’s economy. They are equally implicated in Saleh’s crimes, even if it often appears that Saleh is the state.

Few people know this better than Kamal Sharaf, a freelance cartoonist.

Sharaf’s cartoons about Yemen and other Arab struggles in countries like Palestine were published in newspapers and on websites. He often mocked President Saleh and consequently received emails warning that he would regret it. “Don’t step on people who are above you,” said one email.

In August 2010, Kamal was at home breaking the Ramadan fast when “special forces surrounded the house like American marines,” he recalls. “They had lasers on their guns. It smelled like America. Even their bodies were different from Yemeni soldiers.”

One of the soldiers shouted: “Kamal come down or we will break the house.” Kamal and his brothers went out.

A police officer told him there was a warrant for his arrest and he would find out what the charges were later. Two soldiers cuffed his hands behind his back, blindfolded him and forced him to lay down in their vehicle. He could feel their gun barrels touching his head and stomach.

“I was surprised and didn’t understand anything,” he said, “in the ride they didn’t say anything. I asked them to remove the gun from my stomach because it hurt with bumps on the road – but they just pressed harder.”

They took him to the national security headquarters where his cuffs were changed from wire to metal, “American made, I can assure you,” he said.

They put another blindfold on his eyes and left him standing alone.

“It was intended to terrify me,” he said.

Cartoonist to al-Qaeda ‘terrorist’?

He was eventually interrogated with the blindfold still on by what he guessed were seven people. The interrogation lasted until dawn. They asked about his charicatures of the president and about his relationship with another journalist called Abdelillah Shay’a who specialised in Islamist movements.

Kamal was accused of working for al-Qaeda’s media wing along with Abdelillah, as well as with the Zeydi Shia rebels in the north called the Houthis.

The Houthi website, Ansar Allah, had copied some of Kamal’s cartoons which criticised the Yemeni regime’s policy and attacks by Saudi forces which killed Yemeni civilians. Becuase of that, Kamal was accused of running the website. While some interrogators were polite, others began to raise their voices and threaten him.

“We can squash you with our feet,” they warned, telling him “you are less than a bug.”

They accused him of going to Marib in southern Yemen for training with al-Qaeda and to Sada in north Yemen for training with the Houthis. What’s more, they claimed they had proof.

“Choose one, either Houthi or al-Qaeda,” said one interrogator, “don’t dream of going out. We have proof that you are either dealing with the Houthis or al-Qaeda and your anger against the regime is obvious in your work.”

Kamal was confined alone in a small cell where the limited ventilation gave him a lung infection. He remained in the national security prison for 24 days and was interrogated eight times before being transferred to the political security prison for an additional 28 days. At the political security prison he was given an old, heavy pair of handcuffs. He was handcuffed together with his friend, Abdelillah, and other prisoners being transferred.

In the political security prison he was not interrogated. His case was given to the prosecutor and he was told that there was no strong evidence against him. A political security officer said that he had angered certain people and because of that, he had to be “disciplined”.

Kamal was asked to sign a statement saying that he would never draw President Saleh again on the basis that mocking the president is mocking the nation.

“I said of course I will do it, the most important thing is for me to see my family. I signed the paper. Since that time I didn’t draw president directly in any of my work,” Kamal said.

However, when the Yemeni revolutionary protests intensified, Kamal resumed mocking president Saleh in his cartoons. He joined a coalition called “The Nation For All”, and worked with youth groups. They exhibited art in ‘Change Square’, the center of the protest movement, and helped organise a children’s art exhibit as well.  

During this time, his old friend and neighbour, Abdelillah, remained in prison.

The kidnapping

Kamal was with Abdelillah when he was first kidnapped in July 2010. Two cars pulled up and eight men in civilian clothes carrying guns violently forced him out of the car.

“You crossed red lines in your statements on satellite television and if you don’t listen to what we say and understand the message we will destroy your life,” they told him.

During the interrogation they punched him in the face. His head was covered so he didn’t know where they had taken him.

“You are a smart boy,” one of them said to him, “if you listen to our message we will support you and make a famous journalist out of you.”

Then he was dressed in prison clothes and photographed. He was forced to sign statements he had not read. Finally, he was blindfolded and thrown back into the street at 3am. The next day, Abdelillah was interviewed by Al Jazeera about what happened to him. He soon received a phone call from a Yemeni security officer.

“We didn’t agree that you would talk on satellite channels about what happened to you,” he was told.

Before his July arrest, Abdelillah had been threatened on Facebook. Messages warned that he and his children would be hurt because of the interviews he gave to Al Jazeera and other satellite channels about Islamist groups.

On BBC and Al Jazeera, Abdelillah complained that American missile strikes in southern Yemen had killed civilians. Abdelillah also interviewed the American born cleric, Anwar al Awlaki, for Al Jazeera’s arabic website in the cleric’s home in Shabwa.

Abdelillah was arrested again in August on the same day as Kamal. Abdelillah’s brother, Abdelqudus, was living with him at the time and described what happened during the arrest.

One evening in August more than 20 armed men broke into Abdelillah’s house while even more waited outside in the yard and on the street. Some were in uniforms while others wore civilian clothes. Some wore masks. Abdelillah was home with his wife and four children as well as Abdelqudus, his wife, their children and another sister-in-law.

The armed men took Abdelillah forcefully from his bedroom while he was still in his undergarments. He lost a tooth and one soldier bit deeply into his flesh in the struggle. He demanded to see an arrest warrant. They showed him a search warrant instead.

“Daddy! Daddy!” his children screamed, “where are you taking daddy?”

Abdelillah asked them what they wanted from him but they did not answer. They searched the house, taking his children’s laptop, CDs of games and programs, his personal IDs, and some of his notebooks. As they were carrying him away Abdelillah struggled so they opened fire on the door. They took him without his glasses, which he needed to wear all the time, and without shoes.

For the first 35 days his family had no idea where he was. The family, civil society organisations and the journalists’ union tried to locate him unsuccessfully.

He was initially placed in a dirty bathroom for six days. For the next 31 days he ate only dates and water because the food he was given was so dirty. He was told that his brothers and children had abandoned and denounced him.

After 35 days, Abdelillah was transferred from the national security prison to political security prison and the family finally received a phone call about his whereabouts. Abdelillah refused to talk to the prosecutor without the presence of his lawyer, insisting that it was unconstitutional to kidnap him for 35 days.

Abdelillah still had bruises from the beating he received during his arrest when he was charged with joining an armed group with the aim of destroying the security and stability of country – a reference to al-Qaeda. He was also charged with acting as the information advisor to al-Qaeda, of recruiting people to join the organisation, and of encouraging al-Qaeda to assassinate the president and his son.

The defense lawyers boycotted the trial because they viewed it as unconstitutional.

Abdelillah continued to refuse to talk, rejecting the basis of the trial. He demanded that those who assaulted him and kidnapped him for 35 days should be put on trial. In the end, he was sentenced to five years in prison and two years in which he could not leave Sanaa. His lawyers were shocked and insisted there was no basis in the law for the sentence.

US interests behind the arrest? 

In February, it was widely claimed that President Saleh had tried to order his release but that the American government had asked the Yemenis to prevent that. Abdelqudus was very concerned about his brother’s mental and physical state.

“He is very thin,” he told me, “his limbs shake. But he smiles. As a family, we live in shock because it came from the people who were supposed to keep us secure. But these people are the very people who terrified the women and the children. [The children] who were there are in psychological shock – whenever they see a soldier or policeman in the street they cry and get afraid. His son wonders where his father is and when is he coming back. His mother is in her 60s, she suffers a lot.”

Abdulrahman Barman was Abdelillah’s lawyer.

“They did not produce any evidence. The things they produced can’t be called evidence. They produced a Word file in a laptop and claimed that Abdelillah owned it but even if it was his, Abdelillah was kidnapped for more than one month by armed civilians before he was officially arrested and his laptop was confiscated.”

“All the security organisations confirmed that they did not have Abdelillah and they were not responsible for his arrest. We were protesting in front of chief of security for Sanaa until 3am, while military intelligence, political security and national security who were there confirmed that they did not have Abdelillah.”

After Abdelila was arrested and his other laptop confiscated, his emails were opened. They read thousands of emails but still couldn’t find a single word proving Abdelillah’s relation with al-Qaeda. So they took the old laptop and they faked a Word file with a conversation between two people whose names were not known, the date of the conversation was not known, the sender and receiver were not known.

“You cant use this as proof if there was decent justice,” Barman said.

Abdelillah’s lawyers were promised every two or three days for a month that the official investigation would start.

After 27 days the prosecutor called Barman and said they were going to skip the investigation and proceed immediately with charges.

“Your presence or absence won’t affect anything,” they told Barman, the lawyer, “it’s just one question and they will tell him what he is charged with.”

Barman demanded that they present Abdelillah with the evidence as they had promised. They refused.

“The reason was that they didn’t have any evidence,” Barman told me, “there are suspicions that the US is behind his arrest. I was told that the US put pressure on the investigation and trial of Abdelillah. My source was in the ministry of justice and was involved in Abdelillah’s case.”

Barman believed that it was Abdelillah’s reporting and analysis which led to his arrest. He had also been communicating with American media about the massacre of Yemeni civilians in American airstrikes.

“Abdelillah was the first person to talk about it and he spoke about the killing of 45 civilians – including women and children. He produced the names and ages of children, he talked about a father and mother and five children who were murdered. He exposed the Yemeni and American government.”

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.

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