(Beirut) – Yemeni authorities should ensure that an investigation into the killing of a journalist and another man in Aden fully and impartially examines the military’s possible role and brings those responsible to justice.
On February 22, 2013, at 12:30 a.m., two men wearing military vests shot to death Wagdy al-Shabi, a 28-year-old journalist, in his home in Aden, as well as a visitor, Wadoud Ali Saleh al-Somati, al-Shabi’s relatives told Human Rights Watch. A Defense Ministry statement later that morning said that al-Shabi was a “media officer” with the armed group al Qaedain the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who was killed in an attack on the military, but the ministry revoked the statement several hours later.
“Yemeni authorities investigating these two deaths should find out why the Defense Ministry initially said the journalist al-Shabi was a militant killed in an attack,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial for this investigation of a journalist shot dead in his home to be transparent and impartial.”
Al-Shabi wrote for al-Ayyam newspaper until it was shut down by the government in 2009 for allegedly supporting southern separation from Yemen. An article under his name appeared on an Islamist online forum in 2012, praising the Herak southern secessionist movement and Ansar al-Sharia, an armed group formed by AQAP to benefit from its growing militant youth movement in Yemen. Al-Shabi’s family expressed doubts that he wrote the article.
Al-Shabi’s wife, Najla al-Mansoob, told Human Rights Watch that it was past midnight on the night of the killings and that she was in her bedroom when she heard gunshots in an adjacent room where her husband and al-Somati, a close friend in his 30s, were talking. She hid their two children behind a cabinet and then peered into the hallway.
“I saw two men wearing civilian dress and military vests with guns,” she said. “They saw me and started shooting in my direction, but I was able to escape to the bedroom and hid with my children for the next 30 minutes while the men patrolled the house and garden.”
Al-Mansoob said that she heard what seemed to be more people walking outside in the garden, leading her to believe that the two assailants were not alone. An hour later, after the noise had died down and she felt confident that the house was empty, al-Mansoob left her hiding place. She found the body of her husband with five bullets in his back. Al-Somati had also been shot dead. Relatives told Human Rights Watch that although the investigative police arrived at the scene an hour later, the police have not been in touch with the victims’ families since then.
Later on the morning of February 22, the September 26 media website, the platform used by the Defense Ministry to issue public statements, ran a statement viewed by Human Rights Watch alleging that al-Shabi had been a media officer with AQAP and had been killed during an attack on a military checkpoint.
The Defense Ministry spokesman, Yahya Abdullah, told Human Rights Watch that the ministry took down the statement within hours when it became clear that al-Shabi had no links to al Qaeda and that the statement was incorrect. He said that the statement was drafted by an intern who was under investigation, but he confirmed that all statements on the website are reviewed by his office before they are posted.
Other staff at September 26 confirmed to Human Rights Watch that ministry officials review all materials before they are posted online. One said that the person who drafted the statement on al-Shabi’s death was in fact a long-time staff member. Human Rights Watch’s inquiries found no evidence of an attack on a military checkpoint that night.
The Interior Ministry told Human Rights Watch that a committee had been created to investigate the killings but did not provide details on its composition or actions taken.
“Defense Ministry officials need to cooperate fully with the investigation into the killings,” Stork said. “All those found responsible should be fully prosecuted, including any members of the armed forces found to have been involved in the killings of the journalist and his friend.”