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Attack on journalists in Yemen shows it has become ‘death career,’ even away from the front line

The wreckage of a car at the site of an explosion on Aug. 9, 2021, that killed a journalist in Aden, Yemen. (Reuters)

SANAA, Yemen — An attack on two journalists in Yemen’s temporary capital of Aden has renewed safety fears among their colleagues amid worsening violence in the war-torn country’s south.

Rasha Abdullah al-Harazi, a pregnant journalist, was killed Tuesday, and her husband, Mahmoud al-Utmi, was gravely injured when their vehicle was bombed in the coastal city.

For around seven years, Yemen has been submerged in a violent civil war between the government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition since 2015, and the Iranian-backed rebel Houthis, who now control most of the country’s north. Most high-level Yemeni government officials live in neighboring Saudi Arabia, and Aden is run by the Southern Transitional Council, a body backed by the United Arab Emirates that has repeatedly clashed with the government over control of the south.

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Much of the fighting in Yemen is concentrated around the northern province of Marib, where Houthi forces have made significant advances in a bid to take control of the government’s last northern stronghold. Aden is far from those front lines, but the coastal city has been targeted with bomb and missile attacks in recent years, including at least two deadly explosions last month.

Several people were killed in an explosion near a gate outside the airport in Aden on Oct. 31. Earlier that month, at least six people were killed in an attack targeting Aden’s governor, who survived.

Last December, at least 22 people were killed in a missile attack on the airport in Aden that coincided with the arrival of members of the Yemeni government. U.N. experts later determined that the attack was probably carried out by Houthis.

Al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants also have operated in Aden. A spokesman for the Houthis said the movement had no involvement in the bomb attack Tuesday.

Harazi and Utmi were on their way to a medical appointment related to the pregnancy at the time of Tuesday’s attack, said a friend of the family’s who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. Their young son, Jawad, was with his grandmother.

The explosive allegedly was planted beneath the passenger side of the couple’s vehicle, the friend said. A doctor at the hospital where Utmi is being treated told a Saudi news station that he suffered severe injuries, including shrapnel wounds, tendon and muscle ruptures and fractures in his upper limbs. His hands were also crushed, and one eye was injured, the doctor said.

“It was a miracle that Mahmoud did not die,” his friend said.

Utmi works for the Saudi news outlet al-Arabiya, and Harazi worked for a TV channel based in the UAE, according to journalists working in Aden.

Justin Shilad, a senior Middle East and North Africa researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said there is a precedent for such attacks on journalists in Aden.

Last year, journalist Nabil Hasan al-Quaety was gunned down outside his home in Aden. He was among at least 19 journalists killed in Yemen since 2014, according to the CPJ.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a trend that is poised to continue,” Shilad said.

Last month, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted against renewing the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which monitored and investigated attacks and abuses in Yemen.

The decision sparked outrage among advocates who saw the group as a crucial tool to hold Yemeni parties accountable, including for potential war crimes.

Shilad said the dismantling of the group also added to the sense that “there is no reliable and impartial path to justice” in cases such as Tuesday’s bombing.

Bassam Saeed, 32, a freelance journalist and activist in Aden, said he and other colleagues now “don’t feel safe at all.”

The attack “has made many, myself included, fear for our lives and reconsider what we have been doing,” he said. “Any journalist that works on exposing the violations of any of the sides is a target, and his or her life is in constant danger.”

“Journalism has become a death career,” he said.

The couple’s friend, who is also a journalist, agreed. “To us, Aden was a safe haven, where we felt that we could be far from trouble and danger,” the friend said. “We were wrong. . . . I surely don’t feel safe anymore and do not know when this could happen to me.”

Saeed speculated that Utmi, not Harazi, may have been the target of Tuesday’s attack. Harazi had focused more recently on community reporting, he said, whereas Utmi focused on more sensitive political and conflict issues.

The couple had a positive reputation in the journalistic community, said their family friend.

“He likes helping others,” the friend said of Utmi. “She was kind and considerate and did not deserve such a fate. Nobody does.”

O’Grady reported from Cairo.

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