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Family Beg For Help After Compound Holding US Citizen in Yemen is Bombed Again

The US government has managed to save one US citizen imprisoned in Yemen, say Sharif Mobley's family and lawyers, so why won't it help him? VICE News spoke to Mobley's sister.

by Ben Bryant
Jun 12 2015, 5:15pm

Photo via Reprieve

In April US officials told the Wall Street Journal that they enjoyed a new, closer intelligence-sharing relationship with Saudi Arabia over its ongoing airstrikes in Yemen. 

According to the arrangements, the Pentagon was given notice of Saudi strikes, they said. The Saudis pick targets and provide that information for review to Pentagon war planners. US analysts study the would-be targets, offering advice on the most effective way of launching some strikes, and steering them away from others. The aim, officials said, was to prevent critical infrastructure being damaged, and to reduce the potential for collateral damage.

"We are... helping identify 'no strike' areas they should avoid" to minimize any civilian casualties," an official told Reuters.

Those no strike areas apparently do not include a Yemeni compound that is holding an American prisoner, however.

Related: Inside Yemen: Film Shows Remnants of US-made Bomb That Killed Civilians

US citizen Sharif Mobley, who moved to Yemen with his family in 2008 to study Arabic and Islam, has been held since 2010 when he was kidnapped by masked gunmen who shot him in the leg, according to his lawyers. He was questioned by US officials about terrorism links, he says, accusations which were later dropped, but in the meantime Yemen charged him with the murder of a guard during an alleged botched escape attempt.

On June 5 the compound in which Mobley is being held was bombed for a second time, as part of the Saudi-led coalition airstrike campaign targeting Houthi rebels who have taken over much of Yemen since last September. The blast was perilously close, hitting the building next to Mobley's underground cell. Satellite images show the proximity to Mobley, who reportedly escaped injury.


A map provided by Mobley's lawyers showing the compound where he is being held

The strike followed one on May 27 that also targeted Mobley's compound that is thought to have killed at least 80 people. 

Both strikes follow months of attempts by Mobley's family and lawyers at NGO Reprieve to encourage the US to veto strikes on Mobley's location. The earliest was on March 31, when Reprieve demanded that coordinates of the compound be "communicated to Saudi Arabia as a matter of the highest importance so that there can be no excuse for it being targeted in a bombing raid."

"I've been calling [the State Department] asking for assistance, and I've written for assistance, and tried to show them where he's located," Mobley's sister Caamilya Beyah told VICE News, her voice cracking with emotion. "So that we can have him transferred or bring him home. Their response is somewhat callous."

The State Department's official line is that it has no plans to evacuate the small number of Americans being held by Shiite Houthi forces in Yemen. However it has recently intervened in the case of at least one other US citizen. Casey Coombs, an American journalist who was being held by Houthis, was released on June 1 following a mediation by US officials in Oman.

Mobley's lawyers believe that the US was complicit in his original detention, and has a duty to intervene. Mobley was suspected by the US of having ties to terrorist groups after he made contract with US-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a US drone attack in Yemen in 2011. A court filing by Mobley's lawyers states that he was interrogated by two US agents. No terror charges were brought. However, Yemeni officials say Mobley murdered a guard during what they have described as a botched attempt to escape the hospital where he was recovering from his shooting.

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A Houthi activist and journalist familiar with the inner workings of the rebel group told VICE News that Mobley's detainment continued because his case could not be processed under the current circumstances. "Just as soon as the situation will stabilize, he will be brought to justice through the Yemeni justice system," said Hussein al-Bukhaiti. "It's not only him — [the] entire system is frozen. There will be no negotiation about his release because he's accused of killing a soldier. This is a crime committed in Yemen and this is a crime that will be dealt with according to Yemeni law."

Al-Bukhaiti said the US government would not be able to secure Mobley's release even if it wanted to. "Now in Yemen we are at war with the Saudis and the US is a part of it," he said. "So really we do not give a damn about the United States and we will not negotiate about the release of somebody who killed Yemeni soldiers."

Mobley's mother Cynthia wrote an emotive letter to the US embassy in Yemen on June 2, begging for the same assistance afforded to Casey Coombs.

"As an American, I cannot understand why you will not help me, my son, or his children," wrote Cynthia, who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Cynthia received a three-line response informing her that the US Embassy in Sanaa was closed, and suggesting she contact the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Related: Rights Group Says Saudi-Led Coalition Using Cluster Bombs in Yemen

"My mother described it as she feels like she's going to a funeral every day," says Beyah, 36.

"She knows that she has to keep going for Sharif. She always says how difficult it is as a mother. I couldn't imagine as a mother going to sleep at night and not knowing where all my children are. And it really tears me apart."

Beyah, a mother-of-four from New Jersey, last spoke to Mobley on May 14. In a cellphone call in the early hours of the morning, Mobley repeatedly yelled to his sister that guards were trying to kill him.

"It was very upsetting and very frightening," says Beyah. "Just to know that he's in a situation like that, and he's alone, and there's no one there really to support him."

"When my children are home all they say is where is uncle Sharif? When is uncle Sharif going to come home? It feels like we're lying to our children. We're trying to think positive and be positive."

Reprieve has urged the Obama administration to intervene.

"Reprieve has repeatedly asked the US government to tell Saudi not to bomb the prison Sharif is in so that at the very least he may avoid being killed," said Namir Shabibi, an investigator with Reprieve. "Yet twice the prison has been hit by Saudi forces.

"Sharif's family has begged the State Department again and again to help their son, only to be completely stonewalled. We now know that at the same time as the State Department was ignoring Sharif's family it was — as is entirely proper — securing the evacuation of a US prisoner from Yemen.

"The US government's welcome effort in that case makes its indifference towards Sharif and his family even harder to understand. President Obama must act to save Sharif and bring him home to his three children, before it's too late."

Related: 'There Are Just No Words for How Bad It's Gotten': Airstrikes Continue in Yemen Amid Humanitarian Crisis

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant

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