SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's president on Tuesday pardoned a journalist who was jailed for three years on charges of helping al-Qaida and U.S. born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
The case of the reporter, Abdelela Shayie, received international attention. President Barack Obama put pressure on Yemen's former president in 2011 to keep him in custody. Shayie, who published interviews with top al-Qaida figures in Yemen, denied the charges against him. He was detained in 2010. One condition of his release is a ban on travel outside Yemen for two years.
According to the London-based rights group Amnesty International, Shayie appeared to have been targeted for his work "uncovering information on U.S. complicity in attacks in the country." Shayie was sentenced to five years in prison for his association with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's branch in Yemen.
Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered the pardon without making the reasons public. The Yemen's journalists' union welcomed the move to free him. The union chief, Marwan Damag, told The Associated Press that Shayie was being held for "political reasons" and that journalists from the union met with Hadi this year to push for his release.
"We welcome this decision, and we consider it a step in support of freedom of expression in the country," Damag said. A White House statement released in February 2011 said that Obama called Yemen's longtime president at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and "expressed concern" over a decision to release Shayie then. He remained in prison after that phone call.
A statement by Amnesty International in early 2011, said there were "strong indications" that the charges against him were " trumped up and that he has been jailed solely for daring to speak out about U.S. collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen."
That December 2009 attack killed around 55 people, including nearly two dozen children and 14 alleged members of al-Qaida, according to rights groups. The Obama administration has not acknowledged a role in the attack.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also issued statements about his arrest over the years. It called for his immediate release and said his trial was plagued by dozens of procedural violations.
In 2010, Shayie was charged with communicating with "wanted men" and acting as a media consultant to al-Qaida figures, among them al-Awlaki, believed to have been a powerful tool for al-Qaida's recruiting in the West. Al-Awlaki was killed in September 2011 in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
Shayie also published interviews with al-Qaida's leader in Yemen and with Saudi-born Saeed al-Shihri, who was released from Guantanamo after nearly six years and later became the No. 2 al-Qaida leader in Yemen. Al-Shihri was later killed in a November drone strike, the militant group acknowledged.
Shayie's lawyers say he was carrying out his legitimate work as a journalist. Washington considers al-Qaida in Yemen the group's most active and dangerous branch. The U.S. has provided varying degrees of aid for Yemen over the years, including financial and material support to its military, as well as helping it restructure in accordance with a plan put in place by the U.S. and Yemen's rich Gulf neighbors.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report.