Al-Qarni lawyers barred from courtroom as comic’s verdict is delayed until July [Archives:2008/1161/Front Page]

May 5 2008

By: Emad Al-Saqqaf
and Sarah Wolff

TAIZ, June 4 ) The verdict in the case of comedian and performer Fahd Al-Qarni was delayed until next month, while a crowd of nearly 300 waited outside the courthouse and watched as security forces blocked and turned away both lawyers and the media, who were trying to enter the court.

Yesterday's hearing was supposed to be the last for Al-Qarni, a comic singer and actor affiliated with the Islamic Islah Party. Al-Qarni's verdict was supposed to have been announced yesterday, but the court deferred any decision until the final hearing on July 9.

Taiz security forces arrested Al-Qarni in early April on charges of sedition and harming national unity by his satirical performances mocking the Yemeni government and President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“We've [heard] certain leaked information that the verdict has been decided,” one of Al-Qarni's attorneys, Abdulrahman Barman, reported. “The judge said he'll announce the sentence on July 9, which means it's no longer a trial, but that the defendant already has been found guilty.” He added that he expects Al-Qarni to be sentenced to “many years” in prison.

However, Mansour Ali Alawi, who heads the Taiz appeals prosecution, denies Barman's claims about the verdict. “That's just talk among the opposition parties. If there indeed was a verdict, then why wouldn't the judge announce it today?” he asked, adding that, “The court is reviewing and listening to the evidence and the judge says he needs to deliberate the case further.”

Courthouse security barred all media from entering yesterday's hearing and allowed only five attorneys from each side into the courtroom. According to the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD), a group of around 70 attorneys have volunteered to help work on Al-Qarni's case.

However, Al-Qarni's defense team, led by Abdullah No'man, reported that three of the five supposed defense attorneys permitted to enter actually were lawyers for the ruling General People's Congress Party. The remaining two defense attorneys allowed to enter the court were Ali Al-Mansoub and Mohammed Musa'id Naji. The names of the prosecutors were unknown at press time.

Al-Mansoub maintains that the case against Al-Qarni now is unbalanced, with only two of his defense team's attorneys allowed to represent him in court while eight represent the government.

Defense team head No'man decided not to attend yesterday's hearing after Judge Abdulaziz Al-Ward refused to allow any other defense attorneys (besides the two already permitted) to enter the court. No'man remarked, “It doesn't honor me to attend such a court.”

As Barman explained, “Whenever one of the GPC attorneys came [to the court], security personnel hailed him and told him to enter when he was among us.” He added that security forces photographed supporters in the crowd outside the court.

Brawl erupts at Al-Qarni's last court hearing

Last month's second hearing for the Taiz-based satirical comic and singer turned brutal when security forces stormed into the courtroom after Al-Qarni's songs were played aloud before Judge Al-Ward to loud cheering.

At the hearing, a CD of Al-Qarni's quotations was played aloud in court for a crowd of attendees, including observers and members of the prosecution and the defense teams. Angered by the loud applause that erupted for Al-Qarni's CD, the prosecution team demanded it be turned off.

When the judge didn't immediately silence the music, an observer left the courtroom only to return shortly thereafter with the head of the Appeals Court, who confiscated the case files from the court secretary without the judge's permission.

Appeals court director Alawi also arrived at the scene during this time and allegedly verbally abused the defense team with insults. Shortly thereafter, security personnel burst into the courtroom, beat members of the defense team and dragged them from the room. Security also forced Al-Qarni from the courtroom and took him back into custody.

“I had the right to intervene because the defense team clapped and whistled while Al-Qarni's CD was played as evidence in the court,” Alawi said, adding, “They disrespected the hearing; they looked like clowns.”

Defense attorneys protested outside of the court, claiming that the entire fiasco was rigged to prevent a decision in Al-Qarni's case and keep him incarcerated for even longer. The defense team requested the National Supreme Judiciary Committee look into the day's events and released a statement condemning the verbal and physical violence they say was perpetrated by the prosecution. Alawi described the lawyers as “rude rioters.”

However, public prosecution denies the defense team's claim about the verbal and physical abuse in the courtroom. Prosecutor Abdulsalam Muqbil explained that according to the law, the defense team has the right to support Al-Qarni, but making a ruckus in court took their support too far. “Unfortunately, they created chaos in the courtroom in order to mislead the judge so he wouldn't see the evidence,” he said, adding, “This is what happened at the last hearing.”

Another defense attorney, Tawfiq Al-Shuaibi, accused the court of breaching the law for the sake of pleasing the government. He noted that numerous violations were committed against Al-Qarni, beginning with the manner of his arrest and followed by his jailing, which Al-Shuaibi says was extraneously long.

He maintains that Al-Qarni's case is based on political motives and that it's unlawful because he's done nothing wrong. He says the case against the singer is a type of revenge to punish him for his satirical performances during the most recent presidential and local elections.

Barman indicated that Al-Qarni will be retried in Sana'a on the same charges, which he agrees are illegal under Yemeni law.

“[The prosecution] said Al-Qarni implicitly depicted the president in one scene, which could be considered an insult to him,” said Al-Mansoub, one of the two defense attorneys permitted to enter yesterday's hearing. He maintained that such criticism – even of the president – is permissible because Yemeni citizens have the right to freedom of expression, which is one of the tenants of democratic rule.

The Joint Meeting Parties, the political bloc comprised of several opposition groups including the influential Islah and Socialist parties, condemned the charges against Al-Qarni. “Accusing Al-Qarni reflects the weakness of the Yemeni government's understanding of democracy and freedom of expression,” JMP leader Amin Al-Maqtari said.

Mohammed Abdu Sufian, a GPC spokesperson in Taiz, urged the ruling party to take the suit against Al-Qarni seriously by sentencing him harshly for his insults against the Yemeni president and the government. There's an ongoing discussion within the Yemeni Parliament regarding passing a law to imprison anyone who offends the president, the ruling party or the Yemeni flag for up to 10 years.

Additionally, Mohammed Al-Adhra'i, another well-known Yemeni comedic singer, alleges that he and other supporters were attacked when they visited Al-Qarni at Taiz Central Prison.

Al-Qarni himself demands President Saleh release him and apologize to him, as well as to the Yemeni people, claiming that he has suffered abuse and mistreatment while in prison.