It could have been me

When hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed or forcibly displaced in a northern region of Yemen, the

When, a few years ago, I won an Amnesty International Media Award for human rights journalism, I felt a bit of a fraud. We western hacks preen when adjectives such as "dogged", "brave" and "committed" are attached to our names. But the risks for us are seldom all that high; and even when we do face danger, it is not usually for all that long.

Alongside us at those awards, however, are honoured journalists from other countries who show us the real meaning of bravery and commitment in the pursuit of human rights; who put their reputation, freedom and physical safety at risk every single day; who live among the people they are exposing, with nowhere to retreat to, no one to protect them and almost no one even to notice if they are persecuted.

They do, however, have Amnesty International. And that is why I am glad to have been asked to make a fuss about Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, the former editor of Yemen's al-Shora newspaper and winner of this year's Amnesty award for human rights journalism under threat. Al-Khaiwani accepted his gong from jail, where he has just started a six-year sentence for crimes such as "publishing information liable to undermine the morale of the military".

Al-Khaiwani's threat to morale was to describe, and condemn, what appear to be grave human rights abuses in the Yemeni province of Sa'ada, where there have been armed clashes between the government and members of the Zaidi Shia community. According to Amnesty, "hundreds, possibly thousands, of people, including civilians taking no part in the violence, are believed to have been killed or forcibly displaced". The government has denied journalists access to the area, but al-Khaiwani managed to report from there.

It is not the first time he has been made to suffer for his work. In 2004, he was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for "insulting the president". In June 2007, he was detained for a month, reportedly assaulted by security forces and denied medical attention. Then, in August, he was abducted by gunmen, beaten and threatened with death if he continued to publish articles criticising the government. "The authorities are trying to silence me," he says, "but I'm not prepared to censor myself for an easy life."

Standard-bearer of freedom

Many other Yemeni journalists and peaceful critics of the state have faced similar pressures. Websites have been blocked, lawyers and journalists beaten, a comedian called Fahd al-Qarni detained for appearing at a festival at which he performed a satirical act critical of government policies.

The title of this feature implies that there are some parallels between what has happened to Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani and what happened to me over the famous Iraq dossier. There aren't that many parallels. Both of us, I suppose, did come under attack from the state, but what the state could do to us was rather different.

What our cases do show, perhaps, is that freedom is not simply a checklist of constitutions or laws. It is an ecosystem. In holding the government to account over Iraq, our institutions - civil service, parliament, judiciary - gave a performance that was strikingly hopeless. But Britain's highly developed ecosystem of civil society - pressure groups, independent lawyers and journalism, some of it my own - helped make up for it.

And Yemen, to its great credit, is one of those countries where a fragile civil society is developing. At the Amnesty awards ceremony al-Khaiwani told us, through an intermediary, that even though he was suffering a prolonged "ordeal", he had "never been alone, thanks to the solidarity of my colleagues and support from the fledgling Yemeni human rights movement".

His use of the "fledgling" metaphor is journalistically exact. Al-Khaiwani is a standard-bearer for Yemen's budding ecosystem of civil society. Our task is to defend him, and the other plants of free expression springing up, from the bulldozers; to protect their growth and allow them to pollinate and reproduce until they reach the point where they are too many, and too tall, to be destroyed.

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This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’