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Britons await verdict in Yemen terrorism trial

THE DRAB colonial courtroom near the old port in Aden will be packed and sweltering as the verdicts are read in Arabic. Simple tourists or agents of terror? When the judge has pronounced, the eight young Britons in their blue prison smocks are likely to make their views known loudly from dock - whatever the outcome.

The trial has dragged on for six months as the ceiling fans have churned to little effect and eyelids have drooped among the few reporters to follow it. Alongside the tedium, however, controversy and farce have been evident too. Controversy came when every member of the defence team resigned because they could not consult their clients in prison. They were also denied the right to call independent experts on the torture the eight claim to have suffered.

Farce also surfaced during the proceedings as poor translations saw the defendants fall around with laughter while the judge hammered vainly for silence with his much-used gavel.

This desert saga began in the most unlikely fashion last December when an Aden policeman stopped a car for driving the wrong way at a roundabout. Its three occupants started to hand over papers then thought better of it. There was a chase, a crash and later the three were tracked down to a villa, where they had been staying with others. Some of the eight were actually rounded up in the desert after sheltering with Bedouin tribesmen.

They turned out to be Britons from the Pakistani communities around London, Luton and the Midlands: Mohamed Kamel, 17; Shahid Butt, 33; Mohsen Gailan, 18; Sarmad Ahmed, 22; Malek Nasser Harhara, 26; Ghulam Hussein, 25; Shahzad Nabi, 20 and Ayaz Hussein, 26. They had come to the Yemen, they said, to take a holiday or to study Arabic.

For the police, these stories were much at odds with what they claimed to have found in the car boot: five kilograms of TNT, five mines and two rocket launchers.

The Britons then confessed to a plot to wreak slaughter on Westerners on Christmas Day. Their targets allegedly included a tourist hotel, a club, a restaurant, the British Consulate and Aden's Christian Church.

The confessions told how the men had collected the explosives from Abu al-Hassan, commander of a fundamentalist army pledged to turn Yemen into an Islamic state. They were said to have had weapons training with his guerrillas in the Yemeni mountains.

As if to confirm the link, when Abu al-Hassan heard of the arrests he kidnapped 16 holidaymakers on a valley trek, most of them British. He demanded his "jailed friends" were freed. Four of the tourists died when the Yemeni army decided to end the hostage crisis with a shoot-out. Abu al-Hassan was captured, tried and sentenced to death.

At their trial, the eight Britons have insisted that the confessions they signed with inked thumb-prints were all produced under torture. They have accused their interrogators of deploying electric shock treatment and beatings, sexual abuse and hanging them upside down by their feet. When their demand for an independent medical examination was rejected they held a sit-down protest in the cell below the court, until being pushed back into the session at gunpoint.

Each defendant tells a different story of what took him to the Yemen, and some seem to have no links with each other. One Islamic figure in London, however, looms as an apparent link across continents and cultures, the Imam at Finsbury Park Mosque, Abu Hamza. Mohamed Kamel, 17, and the youngest of the accused, is Abu Hamza's son. Mohsen Gailan is the Imam's stepson.

The group Abu Hamza founded, "Supporters of Shariah" is committed to defending Shariah or Islamic law against states it sees as threatening its values, such as Yemen, and the corruption of Islam by the West. He has previously sent out communiques supporting Abu al-Hassan's Islamic army.

Supporters of Shariah organise training, including arms instruction, for Muslims who are willing to act for the cause. Yemeni police actually paraded for view several "training videos" made by Abu Hamza's group and allegedly found among the Britons' possessions. None the less Abu Hamza denies that he sent his son, his stepson or anyone else to blow up targets in Yemen.

Different videos were screened in court to show the defendants' attraction to military pursuits. These home movies, filmed in Albania, hardened at least the circumstantial case against them. First Abu Hamza's stepson, Mohsen Gailan, was shown brandishing a Kalashnikov. Then Mohamed Kamel was shown loading a gun and pointing it in the air. Later on the tape he was filmed tying a grenade to a door handle, apparently rigging a booby trap.

The families say that British consular and legal assistance for the accused has been non-existent, and argue it would have been very different if these men had been white Britons.

There are some in Aden who expect the verdicts and the sentences to reflect the gravity with which the case has been portrayed here - and perhaps to make a political point. This is the story, Yemen says, of Britain, a Western government that has long complained of the Middle East exporting terrorism, allowing itself to be a base for terror aimed at this region. If the judge finds against Mohamed Kamel and the others, sentences could be as long as 10 years.

Others prefer to look a little beneath the surface. Yemen is a poor economy desperately in need of Western aid, they point out. This case has made relations tricky enough between Yemen and Britain. Whatever the outcome it may be that these eight "tourists" are sent home soon anyway. A deal could be in everyone's best interests.