Shaye and Obama

Jeremy Scahill has an article about the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye in the Nation. Here are some of the facts given:

On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed.

After Shaye was convicted and sentenced, tribal leaders intensified their pressure on President Saleh to issue a pardon. “Some prominent Yemenis and tribal sheikhs visited the president to mediate in the issue and the president agreed to release and pardon him,” recalls Barman. “We were waiting for the release of the pardon—it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day.” Word of the impending pardon leaked in the Yemeni press. “That same day,” Barman says, “the president [Saleh] received a phone call from Obama expressing US concerns over the release of Abdulelah Haider.” Saleh rescinded the pardon.

Shaye was convicted of working with al-Qaeda. Major human rights groups and journalist groups say the trial was a sham, but the US government and President Obama say Shaye was facilitating al Qaeda. Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Drum end up on opposite sides. At this point, I think Glenn has a better argument–here’s Kevin’s argument:

So is President Obama keeping an innocent Yemeni journalist in prison merely because he reported facts that Obama wanted suppressed? If I said that I find that hard to believe, I supposed I’d be accused of terminal naiveté or possibly an acute case of Obama worship. But what’s the alternative? Everything that Shaye reported in 2010 had long since been common knowledge. Obama has suffered, as near as I can tell, literally zero embarrassment from this episode. The al Majala attack got a small bit of media attention when it happened and has been completely forgotten since.

So what kind of person would pressure the Yemeni president to keep an innocent journalist in prison over a slight so tiny as to be nearly nonexistent? Almost literally, this would be the act of a sociopath.

The U.S. government insists that Shaye is no mere journalist. “Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment,” says Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Is that true? I have no idea.

But which do I find more likely? That Shaye is indeed affiliated with al-Qaeda based on evidence that hasn’t been made public? Or that Barack Obama is a sociopath who pressures foreign leaders to keep innocent journalists in prison based on the fact that they very slightly annoy him? Call me what you will, but I have to go with Door A.

This argument is ignoring a few things: Shaye is considered a legitimate reporter by other reporters in the area and in the US; this bombing and the fact that it was done by the US seems to have had major repercussions in Yemem and the US wants the central government of Yemen to stay in power (although they don’t especially like some of the people in power or the structure); the lack of media coverage in the US works both ways in an argument.

Here’s my take: Shaye has caused major problems for the Yemeni government and they would like to keep him in jail but are pressed to release him. President Obama is able to give them a reason with no real repercussions to himself. This would make this a classic case of real politik. If the Yemen government falls then al Qaeda might then have a safe haven, which would then allow them to step up international attacks–what’s one journalist against that?

For me, the main problem here is that Shaye has been imprisoned with no real evidence  and now is kept in prison because the US asserts that it has evidence that can not be shown because it’s secret. Kevin has often shown that he is very much against this for US citizens, but now says he doesn’t care as much if it happens in other countries:

Bright lines sound great from a distance, and there’s no question that bright lines are appropriate sometimes. They’re brightest in the case of direct U.S. action against a U.S. citizen. They’re a little less bright when it’s U.S. action against non-citizens. They’re less bright still when it’s a matter of nudging a client state to take action against a non-citizen. And it’s even less bright on a hot battlefield.

Again Kevin is ignoring a possibility. He says the only alternative is for Obama to release the information publicly, but it could also be shown to someone, such as a judge (he could, for example, have him transferred to the US and have a secret trial). If the president is going to argue that a person should be kept imprisoned without a real trial then he should show evidence to somebody–it would be nice if we had a Congress that would make him.

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