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21 December, 2012 - 14:21

"Repent or die" in Yemen

Ali Ali Qasim Alsaidi's Facebook page  data/files/ali_saidi_fb.jpg

Ali Ali Qasim Alsaidi felt Yemen and its people were drifting away from Islam as it was meant to be. He wrote his findings – substantiated by Qu’ranic readings – on Facebook. And he’s now accused of apostasy, facing death penalty.
 
It is early the morning when Ali Ali Qasim Alsaidi (43) drives to the Press and Publications Court in Yemen’s capital Sana’a. Dressed in a brown suit, he steers his old Mercedes through the quiet streets of the city. People here are oblivious to the Kafka-like trial Alsaidi will be facing in an hour or so.
 
“It’s sorry or die”, he says. He means that in order for him to be cleared of the apostasy accusation, he has to repent. But he finds this difficult. “The things I wrote on Facebook were the result of research and are religiously correct”, says Alsaidi. He also felt it was his duty to write them down.
 
Galileo of Yemen
Alsaidi is the general director for budget and planning at the Yemeni Higher Judicial Council Secretariat. It was his colleagues who allegedly reported him to the prosecutor’s office. His lawyer Amin Hajar says that Alsaidi’s colleagues did so because they wanted his job. According to Hajar, “they have turned him into the Galileo of Yemen, only 500 years later.”
 
“Religion in this country is going this way”, Alsaidi points to the right, “and the people are going that way”, he points to the left. This is what he tried to make clear in his Facebook posts, most of which he published in the spring of 2011, when there was heavy fighting between government troops and the tribesmen of Hameed al Ahmar in the Al Hasaba district.
 
Taboo on discussing religion
“In this country you can discuss everything except religion”, says Alsaidi. And indeed, there is hardly any subject Yemenis do not discuss daily and at great length during their qat sessions, but religion is hardly ever one of them. “Nobody has read the Qu’ran. People just listen to all kinds of sheikhs.” In his Facebook posts he emphasises the importance of using reason as a means of finding the truth in religious matters.
 
For this, Alsaidi now stands trial in the Press and Publications Court. There’s a crowd in front of the entrance to the building, where many of Alsaidi’s family, friends and neighbours have gathered. They all believe in his innocence and are annoyed by the affair. “This country doesn’t know what freedom means, and Islah (Yemen’s equivalent to the Brotherhood) is making it worse”, they say angrily.
 
Article 259
The specialised Press and Publications Court was established in 2009. Many people believe its sole purpose is to silence Yemen’s few independent media outlets. Apparently it is now also being used to silence bloggers and Facebook users. It is questionable whether this court has the authority to do so, which is one of the arguments Alsaidi’s defence lawyers will be using. But then again, if not this court, there’s probably another one in Yemen.
 
A more important line of defence is that nothing Alsaidi wrote is against Islam and thus in violation of Article 259 of the Yemeni criminal code which states that “anyone who turns back from or denounces the religion of Islam, will receive the death penalty after being asked to repent three times and after having received a respite of thirty days.’
 
Eliminating apostates 
Alsaidi didn’t denounce religion, argues his defence team. Or as the Yemeni journalist Hind Aleryani wrote in her blog: “there is nothing in Alsaidi’s writings that shows he is an unbeliever.’ Support came from other sources as well. Most of them are afraid that if this case succeeds, the apostasy article might be politically (ab)used to get rid of people.
 
But the media and lawyers aren’t raising the even more fundamental question, at least from a Western perspective, about whether there may be something wrong with the article itself. What if Alsaidi or anyone else were an unbeliever? Should the state have the right to punish people for denouncing their religion?
 
Religious conservatives
“Of course”, responds a schoolteacher who lives not far from the court and wishes to remain anonymous. “This is an Islamic country, and Islam is clear about everything. There is no need for people to voice their opinions about it. And if he truly is an apostate, he should be punished.’
 
Which is exactly what Alsaidi’s family and friends are afraid of. “It is not only the court that could punish Ali. Any crazy person who considers him a kafir [unbeliever] might also decide to kill him”, they say. They stroke their chins, referring to men with beards.
 
"Repent or die"  
Then it is time to go inside the courtroom. The hearing doesn’t take long. Alsaidi’s defence team repeat what they’ve said before: their client should not be here. The prosecutor repeats what he said before: Alsaidi is an apostate. The judge says Alsaidi’s defence team should come up with a better defence, next week, same time, same place.
 
Back in the car Alsaidi is disappointed. This is not good. “Nothing changed. They are delaying the case because they want me to repent, but how can I? I am afraid I will first lose my job, then my wife [under Yemeni law a Yemeni wife cannot be married to an (alleged) unbeliever] and then my life.”