October 26, 2009 / 12:28 PM / 10 years ago

Yemen starts trial of northern rebel leader in absentia

SANAA, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Yemen began the trial in absentia on Monday of a leader of Shi’ite rebels in the north of the Arabian Peninsula country, accusing him of spying for a foreign country.

The trial of Yahya al-Houthi, who is based in Germany, comes after President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed this month to crush the revolt by Zaidi Shi’ite Muslims in Saada and Amran provinces. Yahya, a parliamentarian who left for Germany three years ago, is the brother of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the rebels’ military leader on the ground in Yemen.

The court heard that he is charged with "participation in an armed gang that...carries out killings, explosions, destruction, looting and espionage in favour of a foreign country and planning to assassinate a number of figures including the American ambassador in Sanaa".

It was not clear which foreign country the prosecutors were referring to, but government officials have said Iranian media supports the rebels and Saleh has suggested Iranian religious figures provide funding.

Iran and Shi’ite allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq have called on Sanaa to bring the fighting to an end through negotiations.

The court is expected to appoint a lawyer to represent Houthi. This month 12 rebels were sentenced in two trials of men captured during fighting in an area only 30 km (19 miles) north of the capital Sanaa last year.

The Zaidis first took up arms against the rule of veteran ruler Saleh in 2004, citing political, economic and religious marginalisation by the Saudi- and Western-backed government.

But the conflict intensified in August when the army unleashed Operation Scorched Earth. Aid groups, who have been given limited access to the northern provinces, say up to 150,000 people have fled their homes since 2004.

Saleh also faces a separatist movement in the south and top oil exporter Saudi Arabia fears the instability will help al Qaeda launch more attacks there. (Reporting by Mohamed Sudam; Writing by Andrew Hammond))

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