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Yemeni Justice System Questioned

November 29, 2000

SAN’A, Yemen (AP) _ Suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole likely will not go on trial for four weeks, and when they do, attention will focus on Yemen’s justice system _ a system branded anything but just.

The State Department, in its most recent review of Yemeni justice, described security forces torturing suspects to extract confessions, defendants denied lawyers and judges swayed by bribes or government pressure.

``The two main issues are lack of training and lack of independence,″ Jamal Adimi, a Yemeni lawyer who seeks to reform the legal system, said Wednesday. ``We have good laws, but they are not implemented because the judges are not strong enough.″

The Yemeni government has acknowledged the problems. Reforms announced in 1997 included publishing a judicial code of ethics. Last year, the government dismissed several judges accused of corruption or incompetence, and it has accepted World Bank help in training judges.

But observers say the reforms have not yet had time to produce results. The evidence must not only be admissible in a Yemeni court but also must hold up in U.S. proceedings, a U.S. official in San’a said.

Such concerns are part of the reason U.S. investigators want to at least be present at the interrogations of suspects in the deadly attack on the Cole. The Yemeni government has yet to grant the United States such access, though U.S. investigators have been given transcripts of interrogations and allowed to take physical evidence for analysis.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States and Yemen agreed Wednesday on how the inquiry would be carried out. He gave no details, except to say the accord calls for cooperation between U.S. and Yemeni investigators. It was signed in Aden by U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine and a Yemeni official, Boucher said.

But a U.S. law enforcement official, who requested anonymity, said the agreement called for FBI agents to observe interviews of witnesses and suspects and submit questions for Yemenis agents to ask but not to participate directly themselves in the questioning. U.S. officials have said this arrangement preserves Yemeni sovereignty while allowing FBI agents to testify later in U.S. courts, if charges are brought there, that torture was not used to extract statements.

The attack on the Cole occurred Oct. 12, when two suicide bombers steered a small boat laden with explosives alongside the U.S. warship and detonated it in Aden harbor at Yemen’s southern tip. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and 39 others injured.

A Yemeni source close to the investigation said this week that Yemeni police had concluded their inquiry and would recommend prosecutors bring charges against at least two suspects on charges of carrying out the attack, threatening state security, forming an armed gang and possessing explosives.

It was not clear when charges, some of which carry the death penalty, would be filed. The U.S. official in Yemen _ who spoke on condition of anonymity _ said a trial was not expected before Ramadan ends in late December.

If information gleaned from proceedings in Yemen were someday to be used in a U.S. prosecution, ``you have to have integrity in the chain of evidence _ that means the evidence has to be gathered by U.S. law enforcement,″ Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism, said in a telephone interview.

He said information gleaned from the Yemeni proceedings, particularly physical evidence such as bomb fragments and tissue samples that could lead to DNA identification of the suicide bombers, could provide leads for U.S. investigators who believe a broad, international conspiracy is behind the attack on the Cole. But information won’t be evidence, he said.

A Yemeni trial ``won’t help the U.S. criminal prosecution at all, because none of the evidence is up to the standards of a U.S. court,″ Cannistraro said.

The U.S. official in San’a said U.S. concerns could be met but would not elaborate on how that would be accomplished.

The American official said it was apparent Yemeni officials were aware of the attention focused on them and were working to ensure that no charges of judicial or prosecutorial impropriety would be leveled in the Cole case. The official expressed the hope that the Yemenis would be as scrupulous as possible.

Yemeni authorities have been accused of using brutal tactics and ignoring due process.

In August 1999, eight Britons and two Algerians _ who prosecutors said were linked to Islamic radicals _ were convicted of forming an armed gang with the aim of plotting terrorist acts in Yemen. Four of the Britons also were found guilty of plotting to bomb the British consulate, an Anglican church and a Swiss-owned hotel in Aden.

Britain said there was insufficient evidence against the men. In its verdict, the court overruled the defense contention that the defendants confessed after they were tortured. Two of the defendants said they were sexually abused in detention.

Lawyer Adimi, who was on the defense team, said international attention forced Yemeni officials to ensure that the trial was more open than most.

But in the end, he said, the judge did what the government wanted _ return convictions. ``And that case was as important as this one.″

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