Yemeni court acquits 19 of terrorism

SANAA (AP) — Nineteen alleged Al Qaeda members accused of plotting to assassinate Westerners and blow up a hotel used by Americans were acquitted by a judge who also exonerated some of fighting US troops in Iraq.

The accused denied many of the charges, but some had confessed to fighting US troops in Iraq, and had Iraqi stamps in their passports.

“This does not violate (Yemeni) law,” presiding judge Ahmed Baadani said Saturday. “Islamic Sharia law permits jihad against occupiers.” The 14 Yemenis and five Saudis were accused of forming a gang to assassinate Americans and Westerners in Yemen, and of joining the so-called holy war against the US-led coalition in Iraq.

One defendant testified he had returned home to perpetrate jihad against Americans in Yemen, a US ally and the ancestral homeland of Osama Ben Laden.

But the prosecution failed to provide “adequate evidence that the defendants were plotting attacks against foreigners or planning to assassinate Americans in Yemen,” Baadani said.

The defendants greeted the verdict with cries of “God is Great!” from behind the bars of a cage in the courtroom. Mohammed Maqaleh, an expert in Islamist affairs who frequently appears in the Yemeni media, described the verdict as a “shock” and a sign that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was trying to drum up support from Muslim radicals ahead of the coming presidential election.

Yemen, long regarded as a haven for Al Qaeda, was the scene of the October 2000 suicide bombing against the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors. But the country allied itself with the United States after September 11 and waged a crackdown on militants.

Saleh nonetheless has long-standing ties with militants, who have stood by the administration since the 1980s.

“This [verdict] is a change for the judiciary in Yemen,” said Ali Kurdi, one of the defendants, who spent three years in Afghanistan in the 1990s. “It is fair, something unusual.” Kurdi was charged with being linked to Al Qaeda. 

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