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Yemen signals it may release journalist accused of AQAP ties

Yemen's transitional government is signaling that it may release Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist who was arrested in August 2010 and who U.S. intelligence officials believe supported al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2011 in a trial that drew condemnation from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and human rights and journalist advocacy organizations have since campaigned for his release.

In a meeting with U.N. officials on Monday, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi told reporters that he has made plans to release Shaye, Yemen's al-Masdar reports. Al Jazeera bureau chief Saeed Thabit Saeed, who attended the meeting, wrote on Facebook, "We received a serious promise from [Hadi] that our colleague Abdulelah Shaye will be released," and Times of London correspondent Iona Craig confirmed with Hadi's office that there "is an order from the president to release Shaye soon."

This is not the first time that Shaye's release has been considered. In fact, soon after his 2011 trial, Shaye's release seemed imminent. "We were waiting for the release of the pardon -- it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day," Shaye's lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, told Jeremy Scahill in his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. But that plan fell through after a Feb. 2 phone call between then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President Barack Obama, in which Obama "expressed concern over the release of [Shaye], who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP," according to a readout of the call released by the White House.

The White House's position hasn't changed in the ensuing two years. "We remain concerned about al-Shai's potential early release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP by email on Wednesday.

Nor, for that matter, is Shaye's release certain. Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesperson for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, walked back reports of the journalist's imminent release, telling FP that President Hadi had only agreed to consider ending Shaye's detention.

Shaye's investigative work drew international attention in 2009 when he reported that the United States had conducted an airstrike that killed 41 civilians in the Yemeni village of al-Majalla, and managed to interview New Mexico-born AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on multiple occasions.

In July 2010, the Yemeni government arrested and beat Shaye, and interrogators told him, "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking," according to Scahill's account. Shaye was arrested a month later, beaten again, held in solitary confinement for 34 days without access to a lawyer, and then rushed through a trial on charges that included recruiting and propagandizing for AQAP and encouraging the assassination of President Saleh and his son. By the time Obama intervened in Shaye's pardon in 2011, protesters had begun filling city streets calling for the end of Saleh's three-decade presidency; Saleh resigned in November 2011, and since then his vice president, Hadi, has governed as part of what is slated to be a two-year period of reform and transition.

The U.S. government's case against Shaye is unclear. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Craig in February 2012 that "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans," but did not elaborate. Before Shaye's arrest, an U.S. intelligence official, who told Scahill that he "was persuaded that [Shaye] was an agent," discouraged journalists from working with Shaye on account of "'classified evidence' indicat[ing] that Shaye was 'cooperating' with al Qaeda."

Since his imprisonment, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Yemen-based Freedom Foundation have campaigned for Shaye's release, and last November Yemeni Justice Minister Murshid al-Arashani publicly demanded that Hadi issue a pardon. Though it appears the Yemeni president may be preparing to meet that request, Shaye's family remains doubtful. "It's like the same as previous promises," Shaye's brother Khaled told Craig. "So far this is the fourth time Hadi has made this promise."

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

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How do you investigate North Korean human rights abuses from afar?

On Tuesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council announced the three individuals who will lead the body's first-ever human rights investigation into North Korea. In an interview with the Australian broadcaster ABC, new panel member Michael Kirby, a former justice of Australia's high court, acknowledged the challenges facing the probe but added, "the media gives North Korea a hard time and that maybe or may not be justified. We just have to, as a judge would, decide the matter on the basis of the material that's given to us and report faithfully and honestly."

North Korea is infamously opaque -- a New York Times article on Monday about "the black hole of North Korea intelligence gathering" argued that U.S. "understanding of North Korea's leadership and weapons systems has actually gotten worse." And the outside world may know less about North Korea's gulags -- thought to hold roughly 150,000 to 200,000 people -- than its weapons capabilities.

Not only will North Korea not cooperate with the investigation (it has never admitted to the existence of its gulags), but it's very likely that no one from the United Nations will be allowed to enter the country to investigate. Even if they are allowed to enter, they won't be able to get anywhere near the gulags -- and perhaps won't even make it outside the capital city of Pyongyang.

So how does one investigate human rights abuses in North Korea from Geneva and Seoul? The answer's pretty simple: defectors and satellite maps.

The most comprehensive testimony on human rights abuses in North Korea comes from the NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which in April 2012 released its second report on North Korea's hidden gulags:

In addition to the testimony and accounts from the former political prisoners in this report, this second edition of Hidden Gulag also includes satellite photographs of the prison camps. The dramatically improved, higher resolution satellite imagery now available through Google Earth allows the former prisoners to identify their former barracks and houses, their former work sites, execution grounds, and other landmarks in the camps. The report provides the precise locations exact degrees of latitude and longitude-of the political prison camps that North Korea proclaims do not exist.

The problem is, North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world that some changes only become apparent months, if not years, after they occur. After defectors cross the Chinese border, for instance, it usually takes them years to be in a position to safely tell their stories. And satellite maps show buildings, but not people. The U.N.'s testimony will no doubt be extremely thorough,  but still woefully incomplete when judged by similar human rights inquiries. If, for example, North Korea were to shut down its gulags, how long would it take the rest of the world to discover they no longer exist?