Yemen killers get death penalty

THREE ISLAMIST militants were sentenced to death in Yemen yesterday for the kidnap and murder of a group of Western tourists, four of whom - three Britons and an Australian - were killed in a gun battle when troops staged a rescue mission. Yemeni lawyers warned, however, that the men could still walk free.

Of the five men in custody, two Yemenis and an Algerian were sentenced to death, while another has been sentenced to 20 years in prison. The remainder of the defendants, most of whom were tried in absentia, have been acquitted.

The Britons killed were Margaret Whitehouse, 52, a teacher from Hampshire, Ruth Williamson, 34, an NHS training consultant from Edinburgh, and Peter Rowe, 60, a maths lecturer from Durham. The fourth victim, Andrew Thirsk, 35, had emigrated to Australia from Surrey.

Since last August armed kidnap in Yemen has carried a mandatory death penalty in an attempt to discourage casual kidnapping of foreigners by tribesmen for ransom. The leader of the kidnappers, 28-year-old Zein Al- Abdeen Al-Mehdar - who claimed he seized the tourists to avenge the deaths of Iraqi civilians in last December's US and British air strikes - called on Arabs to rise up and confront the Western powers. The only dialogue should be with bullets, he was quoted as saying shortly before the verdict was announced.

Although the men now face execution by firing squad, they have a possible avenue of reprieve in a pardon from the relatives of those they are convicted of killing. Under Islamic law, or sharia, the next of kin has the right to spare the life of a condemned person, with "blood money" usually being paid as compensation.

Laurence Whitehouse, whose wife was killed in the 29 December rescue attempt - staged against the wishes of the British government - said he disagreed with the death sentences and had hoped for long prison sentences instead. "Margaret and I were both opposed to death penalties. We think it is immoral. No one has the right to take anyone else's lives. I am against the death penalty, but I do hope that appropriate justice is given to the people involved in taking us hostage and killing four innocent tourists. I was hoping for the longer prison sentences, as would Margaret have been.

"Most things are more appropriate than taking people's lives, so a sentence of 20 years does seem much more appropriate than the death sentence."

Lawyers in Aden believe the convicted men are likely to be quietly released once the publicity has died down. Although capital punishment for non- political crimes is commonplace in Yemen, lawyers say the price for the government could be too high if it allows the executions. Yemeni Islamists have warned of reprisals and security at Western embassies has been tightened.

Meanwhile, the trial resumes in Aden today of eight British Muslims accused of forming an armed gang and possessing explosives. The Yemeni prosecution has repeatedly tried to link them to the kidnappers now sentenced, but much of the case rests on confessions the Britons say were extracted under torture.