Re: Investigation into death of journalist Wagdy al-Shabi
We write to express our grave concern about an incident that occurred at 12:30 a.m. on February 22, 2013, that resulted in the death of Wagdy al-Shabi, a journalist killed in his home in Aden, along with his friend Wadoud Ali Saleh al-Somati. Human Rights Watch spoke to multiple sources, including friends and family members of the deceased, as well as an eyewitness to the event. According to these sources, two men wearing military vests atop civilian clothing entered the home of al-Shabi and shot him and al-Somati, both of whom died.
Hours after the incident, news of the killings appeared on “September 26,” a semi-official website that publishes national and international news as well as government statements. The website immediately published an article quoting a source in the Ministry of Defence who stated that military forces killed al-Shabi, whom they alleged was an Al Qaeda media officer, during an attack on a military checkpoint.
Al-Shabi wrote for al-Ayyam newspaper until it was shut down in 2009. An article under his name appeared on an Islamist online forum in 2012, praising Hirak and Ansar al-Sharia. Al-Shabi’s family expressed doubts that he wrote the article and allege that it was planted on the website.
The media office reviews and vets all Defence Ministry statements before posting, according to the ministry’s media officer, Yahya Abdullah. He told Human Rights Watch that his office ordered the website staff to remove the statement when it learned that al-Shabi had no links to al Qaeda and that the statement was incorrect. The website then replaced it with a statement that referred to an attack on a military checkpoint, and then to the death of the two men in their home, but without any allegations against al-Shabi or references to any link between his death and the military's activities.
Mr. Abdullah also said that a new intern at the website drafted the statement based on information from the military source, but was subsequently put under investigation for having written the piece. However, Human Rights Watch spoke with a journalist at “September 26” who said that a journalist who was a long-time employee wrote the statement, not an intern. Mr. Abdullah also initially stated to Human Rights Watch that the military had not carried out the attack on al-Shabi at his home, but then later in the conversation retracted the statement, saying that he could neither confirm nor deny the ministry’s role in the attack.
Human Rights Watch’s inquiries found no evidence of an attack on a military checkpoint on the night of February 21-22 in the surrounding area in Aden, nor any link between al-Shabi and an attack on any other military installation that night. Rather the available evidence points to men wearing some military attire killing al-Shabi and al-Somati in al-Shabi’s home.
The witness accounts provided to Human Rights Watch and the statement issued on the “September 26” website suggests possible involvement of military personnel in these killings. The Defence Ministry spokesman informed us that the Ministry of Interior has begun investigating these killings through the committee that the government recently established to investigate acts of violence in Aden. However, al-Shabi’s relatives told us that although the investigative police arrived at the scene an hour after the shooting, the police have not been in touch with either of the victims’ families since then.
We request the following information be made available to us as soon as possible on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of al-Shabi and al-Somati:
- Who within the Ministry of Defence provided the information for the initial statement published on the “September 26” website? What information did this individual provide and on what basis?
- Who drafted the article containing the Defence Ministry's original version of the circumstances regarding these deaths?
- Who within the Defence Ministry media office reviewed this statement before it was posted on the website?
- Why did the Ministry of Defence revise their original statement? Who contacted the website to ask for these revisions? How did the ministry learn of new information suggesting that the initial statement was incorrect?
- Has the Ministry of Defense conducted an internal investigation into whether military personnel were involved in the killing of al-Shabi and al-Somati? What are the findings of this investigation?
- If military personnel carried out or were otherwise involved in this attack, which military personnel carried out the attack and who authorized it, including their rank and division? Who in the chain of command has oversight of that particular unit?
We would also welcome any public commitment from the Defence Ministry to cooperate with the Aden committee undertaking this investigation, and to encourage the committee to make the results of the investigation public.