Preacher who was expelled by the US became 'a national hero' in Yemen while spending six years in jail for telling an agent he could funnel money to Hamas.
Thousands welcome deported cleric home
SANA'A // Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets yesterday to welcome the cleric Sheikh Mohammed al Moayad, 70, and his assistant, Mohammed Zayed, 35, who were deported from the United States after pleading guilty to supporting Hamas, which the US regards as a terrorist organisation. Sheikh al Moayad returned home after a federal judge in New York on Friday accepted a plea deal in which he and Mr Zayed were sentenced to time served - more than six years - in exchange for guilty pleas and their deportation. An appeals court in October had thrown out earlier terrorism convictions of Sheikh al Moayad, once sentenced to 75 years, and Mr Zayed, who had been serving a 45-year term, and ordered a new trial, saying inflammatory evidence may have prejudiced the jury. "I cannot really describe my feelings now, the joy is as big as six years of suffering and pain for all of us," said Sheikh al Moayad's son, Ibrahim. The Yemeni foreign, justice and human rights ministers, tribal chiefs, political leaders and clerics were among those who turned out to greet the two men at the airport. "The father of the free" read one poster in the crowd. "Freedom day" said another. "This is a victory for the Yemeni diplomacy and human rights as well as efforts of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to set the two men free," Huda al Ban, the minister of human rights, was quoted by the state-run Saba news agency as saying. Walker Murray, a spokesman at the US Embassy in Sana'a, emphasised that the two men were released after pleading guilty to serious crimes but that, "the prosecutor in the case recommended that they be sentenced to time served since their arrest in January 2003 in Germany." Sheikh al Moayad is reportedly suffering from a number of ailments. He and Mr Zayed were lured by a Yemeni-American agent to Germany where they were arrested after telling a US federal agent posing as a US businessman that they would help him funnel money to Hamas. Later that year, the German government extradited the two men to the United States. The informant in the case was Mohamed Alanssi, who set himself on fire in front of the White House in 2004 to protest about his treatment by US authorities. He had discussed his work as a federal informant in a series of interviews with The Washington Post in which he said he went to the FBI in New York shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks and offered information on alleged financiers of al Qa'eda working in Yemen. Hamud Hashim al Tharehi, a tribal chief and head of the public committee supporting Sheikh al Moyad and Mr Zayed, said: "He [Sheikh al Moyad] did not feel guilty of supporting Hamas as everybody including the president [of Yemen] confesses support to Hamas. This is just a way to spare the US the consequences of their jail without evidence they were involved in supporting terrorism. Supporting Hamas is not guilt in the Muslim world." However, Mr al Tharehi said their release was a positive move for the US president, Barack Obama. "The administration of Obama is, of course, different from the previous one and we consider their release a good step for this administration, which pronounced its intent to build a new relationship with Muslims based on respect," Mr al Tharehi said Since his arrest Sheikh al Moyad has become a "national hero" in Yemen, said Najeeb Ghalab, a political analyst and writer. "The Bush administration handled its problem with al Moyad in a stupid way. He is just a mosque preacher and we realise he is innocent of supporting terrorism. Had he been an armed person, the US would not have caught him. The arrogance and aggression of Bush administration has turned him into a national hero and the big welcome he was given is an evidence of that," Mr Ghalab said. firstname.lastname@example.org With additional reporting by the Associated Press