Too poor to buy justice

"It's sad," said the imam. "In Yemen, we can't afford human rights for ourselves. We must rely on yo

According to legend, Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, is the oldest inhabited city on earth, established by one of the sons of Noah. When I arrive at the airport, the walk down the steps from a smart Emirates jumbo jet at once takes me 50 years into the past, and an airport out of the film Casablanca. Drive ten miles further to the cracked, 15-foot-thick mud walls of the Old City of Sana'a, and the clock leaps back several centuries. Buildings cascade in two shades of brown clay around spice shops. In the souk, every bearded man wears a vicious curved knife, a jambiya, tucked into his belt as he strolls the narrow lanes between stalls piled high with cheap Chinese wares.

Each day in Sana'a starts slowly and mutters along until lunchtime. Then life steps down a gear: it is khat time, and for most that is the end of the working day. Khat is a green plant that looks like a short eucalyptus leaf, the crop made juicy by sucking up 40 per cent of the country's scarce water supply. Four out of five Yemenis, from the taxi driver to the college professor, pack a cud into a cheek and enjoy its hallucinogenic effect. Many of them spend one Yemeni rial on khat for every six they earn.

Swept up by the CIA

I was in Sana'a for a meeting that Reprieve had organised for parents and brothers of Yemeni men held at secret US prisons around the world. The gathering was timed to coincide with the sixth anniversary - 11 January - of the opening of Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay.

A former prisoner told the audience how he had been swept up by the CIA in Jordan, tortured for six days, and then taken on a circuitous tour from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan to another torture chamber in Romania. Finally, a year and a half later, someone worked out that he was telling the truth and really was no terrorist, and dumped him back in Yemen. Now he relived his ordeal in front of our microphone, crumpling in tears of shame as he reached his finale. How, he asked, could he get compensation for the 18 months stolen from him, and the lifetime of flashbacks that lay ahead?

How, indeed? Even as he spoke in Sana'a, his path to justice was being impeded by the latest US court ruling - a panel of three appellate judges ruled that same day that a "foreigner" such as him (and most New Statesman readers, to boot) should not be considered a "person" under US law.

Another man said his son had been held for many months at Bagram and was one of an estimated 680 prisoners there, none of whom has ever seen a lawyer. We had to go to the US Supreme Court to get access to Guantanamo; this man's son will never see a lawyer without suing all the way to the high court again.

There were four dozen others at the conference with sons and brothers at Guantanamo; more than a third of the remaining 275 prisoners are from Yemen. Almost all their rich Saudi neighbours have gone home - 123 out of 136 - but very few of the Yemenis, and one of those returned to his family in a coffin after committing suicide at the Cuban prison. What could the families hope to do to reunite their loved ones with their legal rights?

Khat and sanity

Yemenis earn on average £450 per year, less than £9 a week. If a prisoner's father chose to give up his home and not eat for a year, he could hire an American attorney for an hour and a half. Fortunately, there are lawyers willing to do some of these cases for free - half a dozen corporate lawyers from the US attended our meeting.

Human rights are a commodity still far beyond the reach of the average Yemeni. "It is sad," said one imam, "but we cannot afford human rights for ourselves. We must rely on you, from Europe and America, to give them to us."

The critics of khat are probably right when they accuse the green leaf of contributing more to Yemeni poverty than the stultifying heat of the Arabian desert. Yet, in the end, perhaps it is khat that keeps the Yemenis sane.

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights abuses. He represents 30 of the prisoners in Guantanamo. He writes this column monthly. See or contact Reprieve at P O Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty