SANAA (Reuters) - A Yemeni journalist and expert on al Qaeda has been released after serving three years of a five-year sentence for aiding the Islamist militant network in Yemen, the president’s office said on Wednesday.
U.S. President Barack Obama had personally intervened to keep freelance journalist Abdulelah Haider Shai in jail in 2011 after reports that he was about to be released.
Shai is known for his expertise on Islamist militancy and his contacts with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“Abdulelah Haider was released from political security prison as part of a presidential pardon,” the Yemeni Journalists’ Association said in a statement late on Tuesday.
An official at President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s office confirmed the pardon, but said Shai would not be allowed to travel outside Sanaa, the capital, for two years.
Shai, 37, had often appeared on international media as an al Qaeda analyst, and in early 2009, he interviewed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Muslim preacher who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. The interview was broadcast by the pan-Arab television station Al Jazeera.
The original charges against Shai included having links to Awlaki, but these appear to have been dropped, as they were not mentioned when he was sentenced.
Yemeni journalists and activists had staged a number of protests demanding Shai’s release, accusing the United States of exerting pressure on the authorities to keep him in prison.
In February 2011 Obama “expressed concern” in a telephone call with then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh over reports that Shai would be released, the White House said at the time.
Shai was briefly detained by security agents in Sanaa in July 2010 for questioning about his alleged links to al Qaeda. He was arrested again and imprisoned the following month.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists had urged Yemen to free Shai, criticizing what it called a government media crackdown.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; editing by Sami Aboudi and Alistair Lyon