Yemen Acquits 19 Suspected al-Qaida Members

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 8, 2006; 6:49 PM

SAN'A, Yemen -- Nineteen alleged al-Qaida members accused of plotting to assassinate Westerners and blow up a hotel used by Americans were acquitted Saturday by a judge who also exonerated some of fighting U.S. troops in Iraq.

The accused denied many of the charges, but some had confessed to fighting U.S. troops in Iraq, and had Iraqi stamps in their passports.

"This does not violate (Yemeni) law," presiding judge Ahmed al-Baadani said. "Islamic sharia law permits jihad against occupiers."

The 14 Yemenis and five Saudis were accused of forming a gang to assassinate Americans and Westerners in Yemen, and of joining the so-called holy war against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

One defendant testified he had returned home to perpetrate jihad against Americans in Yemen, a U.S. ally and the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden.

But the prosecution failed to provide "adequate evidence that the defendants were plotting attacks against foreigners or planning to assassinate Americans in Yemen," al-Baadani said.

The defendants greeted the verdict with cries of "God is Great!" from behind the bars of a cage in the courtroom.

Mohammed al-Maqaleh, an expert in Islamist affairs who frequently appears in the Yemeni media, described the verdict as a "shock" and a sign that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was trying to drum up support from Muslim radicals ahead of the coming presidential elections.

Yemen, long regarded as a haven for al-Qaida, was the scene of the October 2000 suicide bombing against the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors. But the country allied itself with the United States after Sept. 11 and waged a crackdown on militants.

Saleh nonetheless has long-standing ties with Islamic militants, who have stood by the administration since the 1980s.

"This (verdict) is a change for the judiciary in Yemen," said Ali al-Kurdi, one of the defendants, who spent three years in Afghanistan in the 1990s. "It is fair, something unusual."

Al-Kurdi was charged with being linked to al-Qaida.

The defendants were arrested in early 2005 and accused of having contact with al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and receiving directions from him to attack a Western-owned hotel in the Yemeni city of Aden. Al-Zarqawi was killed June 7 in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.

Saleh's announcement that he will again run for president broke earlier promises to step down after 28 years at the helm of this impoverished Arab nation.

Five Yemeni opposition parties have chosen Faisal bin Shamlan, a former oil industry executive to challenge him. Bin Shamlan has spoken out against al-Qaida and denounced corruption.

© 2006 The Associated Press