SANAA (Reuters) - A Yemeni journalist and expert on al Qaeda is being tried for alleged links to the global militant group, including helping to publicise the views of a U.S.-born Muslim cleric wanted by Washington.
The trial of Abdulelah Shai started on Tuesday in a special security court not attended by his lawyers, who like several attorneys in Yemen, consider the court illegal and boycott it.
Shai’s interview with radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked to the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound plane in December 2009, was posted on the website of Al Jazeera television earlier this year.
Prosecutors accused Shai of “being an active al Qaeda member, including acting as a media secretary for the radical Muslim preacher and working to attract a number of foreigners into joining al Qaeda.” His defence team denies the charges.
“Everything Shai did was part of a journalist’s job of seeking information, whether this is information the government likes or not,” said Mohamed Allawo of the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms, which is defending Shai.
Shai has made numerous appearances in international media as an al Qaeda expert and is often described as having a close relationship with members of the militant group.
“There is no real charge, because there’s no case in the Yemen judiciary against Anwar al-Awlaki and there is no ruling that criminalises contact with Awlaki,” Allawo said.
The U.S. Treasury has blacklisted Awlaki as a “specially designated global terrorist,” a move that freezes any assets he may have under U.S. jurisdiction.
Earlier this year, the United States authorised the CIA to capture or kill him. Awlaki has been linked to an army major who went on a shooting spree that killed 13 people last year at Fort Hood in Texas.
Impoverished Yemen, neighbour to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has been under international pressure to quash a resurgent regional wing of al Qaeda based in the country.
The government has been mounting a U.S.-backed crackdown against the militants since the Yemen branch claimed responsibility for the failed December plane bombing.
In July, Shai was snatched off the streets of Sanaa by agents who interrogated him about al Qaeda and briefly detained him. He was arrested and imprisoned on August 16.
Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on Yemen to release Shai, criticising the country for what it said was a crackdown on the media.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Andrew Roche