No wonder they claw their way out of jail

May 23, 2003

SANA’A, YEMEN ✦ Dohhh! Just when the Yankee cat turns its back to focus on Iraq, the Yemeni mice go out to play.

A gang of al-Qaeda-type jailbirds, including two held as key suspects in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, have apparently vanished from a jail in Aden for good.

Six weeks ago, they escaped in a style that outdid even the Great Escape from Alcatraz. Frank Lee Morris and some buddies escaped The Rock 40 years ago by using Oink and Oscar, a couple of dummies made with cement powder, soap and hair from the prison barbershop.

Clint Eastwood starred in the movie about the wild scheme that involved plenty of other accessories. Planning for months and digging with crude tools, the gang finally escaped through prison ventilation holes.

The Yemeni renegades were more ingenious. Now running somewhere between Egypt and Libya for all we know, they dug through prison with, yes, their bare hands.

An amazing feat, considering efficiency, criminal or otherwise, isn’t a hallmark of Yemeni culture. Bombs blow up in terrorists’ faces regularly.

Consider that before the Cole bombing, an attempt was made on another ship in Aden harbour. But when nearing the USS Sullivan, the terrorists’ boat sank under the weight of their own explosives.

Prison officials claim — straightfaced — that without tools, these 10 boys quietly dug through a rock-hard washroom floor with nobody noticing. Three confused guards are now suspended and the Yemeni government has offered $10,000 US for the gang’s recapture.

Families of 17 American sailors killed on the Cole aren’t impressed and a U.S. grand jury has just indicted the two who are Cole suspects — Jamal Badawi and Fahd Quso. If they’re ever found, they face extradition and possibly death in America.

That penalty is known in Yemen. For example, 30-year-old Abed Kamel, who killed three American aid workers — friends of Jean’s and mine — at a Yemeni hospital “to get closer to God” now awaits execution.

The judge ordered the sentence, usually carried out by shooting, with the hanging of Kamel’s corpse in public for a few days “to show the brutality of his crimes.”

A protester bombed Aden’s courthouse last week to show his displeasure. No surprise there.

We’re talking Yemen, a remarkably quirky and curious country where, you get a “get-out-of-jail-free” pass if connected with the right tribes, but where innocent lives can be ruined in the wheels of injustice.

Indeed, 190 so-called “terrorists,” many arrested over the Cole bombing, continue to sit in Yemeni jails without trial or charge.

Human Rights Watch gives regular reports of such things, but I’ve found examples simply through my acquaintances.

One Yemeni friend told me of his brother being thrown behind bars, without charge, for two months due to a sour business deal. While visiting him, my friend found himself jailed for six days after the cell door closed behind him. Apparently guards forgot he was just a visitor.

“Sometimes they keep a whole family so nobody can get a lawyer,” he told me.

His brother was released after the family was bribed of its life savings, about $4,000 US.

“We have nothing now.”

And Yemen’s local precincts aren’t the Hilton. Want food? Ask family. Your bed? Try the floor. Sorry, no sheets. Yes, you’re crammed with dozens into a space the size of an average Canadian living room. Oh, you need the toilet? Pay the guard.

And you thought Toronto’s Don Jail has problems.

Jean can tell you of disasters she’s seen in prisons for women. “They all sit around in an area like burnt-out barracks. Babies are crawling around. There are flies all over.”

Standing room only and a tiny burner stove, but amazingly, “they want you to eat something,” Jean says. “You just say, ‘No thank you.'”

It’s all enough to make you cry.

Especially when at least a few Oinks and Oscars, guilty as they are brainless, get to run wild and free. Apparently their best chance for justice is at their own hands. We can only pray.

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May 23, 2003 • Posted in ,
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