The Kidnappers in Our Midst [Archives:1998/24/Focus]

June 15 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Dr. Salah Haddash, Ph.D. Law (France),
Professor of Human Rights
The kidnapping of foreign visitors in Yemen is a serious social and legal malaise. It has largely tarnished Yemen’s international reputation and its fledgling free-market economy, not least of which the tourism industry. Kidnapping or abduction is defined by dictionaries as an offense of taking away a person by force.
‘New’ Government Program
Under the heading “Public Security,” the new government program states: ‘kidnapping is an intrusive phenomenon into the Yemeni society, which contradicts the ethics, traditions, and values of the Yemeni people. It needs to be tackled through the concerted efforts of the people and authorities because it has negative consequences on national security and stability.’
The problem is compounded by the practice of some tribes of the age-old tradition of giving refuge to fugitives – read kidnappers. The program states: ‘Those who give refuge or assistance to fugitives are to be punished.’
The Phenomenon
According to Ministry of Interior statistics, the total number of reported kidnapping incidents that took place between April, 1991 and April 1998 were 64. The total number of individuals kidnapped in these incidents was 124.
The incidents took place in the following governorates:
  Sanaa City         26 Sanaa outskirts    8 Mareb                9 Dhamar              6 Shabwa              5 Abyan                5 Baidha               1 Saada                1 Aden                 1 Amran               1 Hadhramaut       1
It is noticed that most kidnappings took place within the borders of Sanaa City, indicating a marked lapse of security in the capital where the seat of government is. In second place comes Mareb with its unruly and disadvantaged tribes.
Only one incident took place in each of the other governorates such as Baidha, Saada, Aden, Amran, and Hadhramaut. This indicates that kidnapping is not really a phenomenon there, a fact that cannot be readily explained because some of the places are large cities such as Aden while others are remote and tribal areas like Saada.
The majority of kidnapped foreigners (46 individuals), were French – including one diplomat, followed by 22 Yemenis, 11 Germans, 6 British and 5 Americans and 5 Polish. Other nationalities had less than 3 people kidnapped. There were 7 females including 3 children with their mothers among the hostages.
Reasons for Kidnapping
The reasons behind these kidnapping incidents vary from one case to another. Purportedly it was because the tribes people had some grievances or unanswered demands with the central government. Such demands included directing the attention of foreign countries or the Yemeni government to their need for basic services such as water, electricity, health care, education, etc. Or in some cases, the tribesmen demanded the release of an imprisoned kinsman from detention.
It is also alleged that some neighboring countries have had a hand in instigating such incidents so as to discredit and destabilize Yemen for their own ulterior political motives. This has not been fully proven yet.
There is no doubt that the widespread of licensed and unlicensed firearms is one of the main factors that helped increase kidnapping and hostage taking in this country.
Position of the State
The position taken by the state in such cases in usually not decisive, as the authorities give in to the tribes’ demands in order to propitiate them into releasing the hostages. Some kidnappers and would-be kidnappers get the wrong impression that its ‘alright’ to take foreign hostages and demand a ransom, be it personal or for the tribe as a whole. So they commit more abductions without the slightest of guilt.
Despite the fact that no hostage was seriously harmed, the “taking of guests,” as it is known in tribal parlance, is still a crime punishable by law.
Yemeni Customs & Law
According to the Yemeni tribal Seventy Rules – customary law- individuals are guaranteed the freedom of movement and public roads must be made safe and secure. The rules also stipulate that the protection of individual lives and property is the duty of all tribes. The majority of Yemeni tribes still respect and fully observe these rules, except for a few renegade tribesmen. Moreover, no taxation of any kind or under any justification should be levied on passing travelers and caravans. Breaking these rules is punishable according to tribal customs and as the tribes concerned see fit.
The Yemeni Penal Law stipulates a maximum of 5 years imprisonment as a punishment for kidnapping and abduction. If the kidnapped is a female, a juvenile or a mentally handicapped person, the no less than 7 years imprisonment is stipulated. If physical harm or torture is done to the hostage, the prison term is increased to a maximum of 10 years (Article 249, Law No. 12 Concerning Crime and Punishment).
However, the state is not able to enforce the law, a thing that can be regarded as a violation in itself since it shows that the state does not respect its laws.
These culprit tribesmen are Yemenis committing a crime on a Yemeni soil, so they should be punished according to the Yemen laws and legislations. Not punishing them implies that they are above the law and encourages them to carry out more abductions.
The official media has been extolling the intended draft law to combat kidnapping as a major solution to this problem. This is illogical since there is already a sufficient but unenforced article in the Yemeni Penal Law dealing with this issue.
Remote areas in Yemen should be fully developed and supplied with the basic services and infrastructures. The general public must be made fully aware of the necessity and benefit of resorting to the law to solve their problems and address their grievances. The should be the use of peaceful means such as letters of petition and peaceful demonstrations.
Charities and other NGOs should be established to help develop disadvantaged areas by popular donations and contributions and through lobbying the government to answer their demands.
The media should air the grievances of these people and help bring them to light and official and public attention.