Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Song and dance in a Yemeni jail

Source:Asia Times Online

By:
Oliver Holmes

29\06\2010


SANA'A - Jamie Mearns, a 35-year-old Scot who traveled to Yemen to learn Arabic, found himself in prison with high-level al-Qaeda members when he was arrested for not renewing his visa.

Mearns told Asia Times Online in a telephone interview that he had also spent some of his incarceration with members of the Houthi rebel movement, a militant Shi'ite sect that has been fighting the Yemeni government since 2004.

On May 1, Mearns and two Malaysian friends, also Arabic-language students, took a day trip out of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a to visit friends and chew qat, a mildly narcotic leaf used at social occasions in Yemen. They were told there would be nocheckpoints and so didn't get the necessary documents from the tourism police to
travel. They did decide to take their passports.

On the way back, their driver wanted to take a faster route. They passed a checkpoint and were arrested. Mearns' visa had expired, although his Arabic language school had told him that he did not need to renew it as he would only have to pay a small fine at the airport when he left.

"I spent a month in prison for an expired visa. When I arrived, I started asking people why they were there. Some said they were al-Qaeda and some said they were Houthis," he said. Mearns was not allowed to make any telephone calls, even to the British Embassy in Sana'a, during his one-month stay.

"I wasn't in a criminal prison, I was with suspected terrorists," he said.

Prison life with al-Qaeda
Although some of the inmates told him they had killed and beheaded people, he did not fear the members of al-Qaeda would harm him as he had converted to Islam three years ago. Mearns said he often met high-level al-Qaeda operatives, including Jamal Ahmed Mohammed al-Badawi, a member of al-Qaeda suspected of orchestrating the USS Cole bombing in 2000 that killed 17 US sailors in southern Yemen.

Mearns told Asia Times Online that he would spend time singing, dancing and Source:Asia Times Online

29\06\2010


SANA'A - Jamie Mearns, a 35-year-old Scot who traveled to Yemen to learn Arabic, found himself in prison with high-level al-Qaeda members when he was arrested for not renewing his visa.

Mearns told Asia Times Online in a telephone interview that he had also spent some of his incarceration with members of the Houthi rebel movement, a militant Shi'ite sect that has been fighting the Yemeni government since 2004.

On May 1, Mearns and two Malaysian friends, also Arabic-language students, took a day trip out of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a to visit friends and chew qat, a mildly narcotic leaf used at social occasions in Yemen. They were told there would be nocheckpoints and so didn't get the necessary documents from the tourism police to travel. They did decide to take their passports.

On the way back, their driver wanted to take a faster route. They passed a checkpoint and were arrested. Mearns' visa had expired, although his Arabic language school had told him that he did not need to renew it as he would only have to pay a small fine at the airport when he left.

"I spent a month in prison for an expired visa. When I arrived, I started asking people why they were there. Some said they were al-Qaeda and some said they were Houthis," he said. Mearns was not allowed to make any telephone calls, even to the British Embassy in Sana'a, during his one-month stay.

"I wasn't in a criminal prison, I was with suspected terrorists," he said.

Prison life with al-Qaeda
Although some of the inmates told him they had killed and beheaded people, he did not fear the members of al-Qaeda would harm him as he had converted to Islam three years ago. Mearns said he often met high-level al-Qaeda operatives, including Jamal Ahmed Mohammed al-Badawi, a member of al-Qaeda suspected of orchestrating the USS Cole bombing in 2000 that killed 17 US sailors in southern Yemen.

Mearns told Asia Times Online that he would spend time singing, dancing a
nd chatting when he was with the Houthi inmates. "I actually preferred staying with the Houthis; the al-Qaeda guys were boring and judgmental. Everything was forbidden in their opinion. Some were recruiters."

Al-Qaeda inmates told Mearns that Uthman Noman al-Salwi, the suicide bomber who failed to kill Torlot, the British ambassador to Yemen in late April, had been held in the same prison.

"He was tortured there. I think he was recruited by al-Qaeda in the prison," said Mearns.

"I was only interrogated twice by the prison guards, and all their questions had nothing to do with my visa. They wanted to know where I prayed, if there were any black Americans at my school and what type of Muslim I was."

"I said: 'I didn't get a list when I joined [Islam]. I thought Islam was a monotheistic religion'." Mearns said the interrogators were trying to find out if he was a Salafi jihadi, an ultra-conservative school of thought that supports violent jihad adhered to by al-Qaeda.

During his stay, he spoke to a Somali who said he was tortured and repeatedly electrocuted, and to a Frenchman who owned a pizza restaurant in Sana'a. He was told of two men from Cameroon who had been imprisoned there for 16 years without visits from their families.

After a month in prison, Mearns went on hunger strike for four days and finally on May 31 he received a visit from a British Embassy official. The next day he was deported.

"My clothes were old and dirty, so I borrowed some from an al-Qaeda member before heading to the airport," he said.

Mearns said an embassy official told him that the embassy had not been informed of his internment until he stopped eating. The embassy in Sana'a refused to comment on individual cases.

Foreigners feel the pinch
There have been reports of 30 to 50 foreigners being arrested in Yemen over the past few months, among them citizens from the US, France, Malaysia and Britain. Jeremy Witter, a 23-year-old French citizen and Arabic-language student suspected of having links with al-Qaeda, was arrested in late May. Analysts say al-Qaeda in Yemen wants to recruit Westerners who can easily cross borders without suspicion.

The Yemeni government has sworn to increase monitoring of language schools in the country in the wake of the failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane to Detroit. Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who studied Arabic in Sana'a, was arrested after his bomb failed to detonate properly. The Yemen-based arm of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing.

Foreign Arabic students are paying a hefty price for the actions of Abdulmutallab. Many have plain-clothed police standing outside their houses to keep an eye on their movements. Some taxi drivers also work as government informants.

Westerners have come under increased scrutiny in recent months. Police briefly detained two Americans in Sana'a for not carrying their passporta. Until recently, it was rare for police to arrest foreigners, who have been allowed to in the capital without identification.

"We were driving back home one night and the police stopped us," said one of the Americans, who asked not to be named. "They demanded our passports but would not let us drive home to get them. We were detained and then released later that night."

Back in Aberdeen with his family, Mearns is relieved to be home but is shocked at how long several prisoners he met, like the Somali and the two men from Cameroon, had spent imprisoned without trial.

A few days after returning to the UK, Mearns received a call. It was his two Malaysian friends. They had been flown back to Malaysia after it was discovered they were not members of al-Qaeda, just over a month after they were arrested.

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