An American man missing inside Yemen’s prison system for one year has been abandoned by the US government after it suspended operations at the US embassy in Sana’a, his lawyers have said.
Sharif Mobley, a US citizen, was snatched off the streets of the Yemeni capital in 2010 on terrorism suspicions that local courts have since dropped. But it has been exactly one year ago since Mobley’s lawyers were able to contact him.
“We’re incredibly worried,” said Mobley’s attorney Cori Crider, working with the human rights group Reprieve. “The US has now left with their tail between their legs. The court system has shut down. Sharif is effectively alone.”
Mobley’s lawyers have over the last 365 days struggled without success to get the Yemeni government to publicly display Mobley, and to enlist the Obama administration to advocate on Mobley’s behalf with its ally. A coup led by Houthi rebels that has deposed President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and upended the US-Yemen relationship has thrown those efforts into even greater uncertainty.
Last month, fearing violence from the Houthis, the State Department suspended operations at the embassy and evacuated staff. It left Mobley behind.
In a comment piece published on the Guardian on Friday, Crider wrote: “Today, Sharif is incommunicado, alone, staring down the barrel of a capital charge in a hopelessly unfair court process.”
Asked about Mobley, a State Department official who would not speak for the record told the Guardian: “The United States does not evacuate prisoners in a crisis situation.”
The official added that consular officers “strive to assist US citizens detained abroad whenever possible”.
In her comment piece, Crider said US suggestions that it has provided appropriate consular assistance to Mobley are “false.”
“The typical sentence for a capital case in Yemen is to be brought to a public square and shot through the heart,” Crider wrote.
Mobley’s wife Nzinga Islam is in Philadelphia, where work and school have been tough. She must drop everything when he gets to call her from a cellphone, halfway around the world. While their oldest child, at eight, is terrified for her father, their youngest, two, has never met him.
Reprieve and Islam have long felt the US – which they say was partly responsible for his initial detention – has abandoned Mobley to his fate. Last summer, as Mobley missed court date after court date, they learned he had been moved to what they believed was a military base not far from the embassy. Using a cellphone smuggled by a sympathetic guard, Mobley spoke to Islam in September, telling his wife he was being forced to drink from a water bottle someone had urinated in and expressing fear for his life.
While US officials have said they have met with Mobley, they have refused to confirm or disclose his whereabouts – or tell Islam much of anything. The US refusal to evacuate him as Sana’a fell into chaos was the latest blow.
“Maybe, maybe, I could understand what they were saying if he was serving a sentence there – so he’s been charged, he’s been found guilty, and now he’s serving a sentence. Maybe I could understand that,” Islam told the Guardian from her Philadelphia home. “Even then, I couldn’t, really.
“But Sharif is not serving a sentence. He’s not found guilty. He’s just there. It definitely doesn’t make sense.”
Mobley, who friends described as growing radical before traveling to Yemen, had contact with the al-Qaida propagandist and English-language preacher Anwar Awlaki. Crider categorically denied Mobley’s involvement in terrorism. But in January 2010, men snatched Mobley off the street, shot him in the leg and took him into custody.
In hospital, men identifying themselves as with the FBI and the Defense Department interrogated Mobley. Shortly thereafter, Yemen charged him with the killing of a guard in what has been described as a botched escape attempt. Yemen has not pursued terrorism charges.
Difficult as it was for Mobley’s family and his lawyers to press his case in the unfree legal system of the US-backed past two Yemeni governments, they at least were able to see Mobley in Sana’a’s central prison. That all changed after 27 February 2014, the last time Reprieve was able to see him.
Even the diplomat who served as US ambassador when Mobley was captured considered a year’s disappearance within the the black hole of custody by Yemen’s security service to be alarming.
“I would say after a year of being lost, if you will, or having gone missing, I think that we should be very worried about his whereabouts,” Stephen Seche told the Guardian.
“That’s not a situation anyone would want to be in, when you’re somehow moved or otherwise made to go missing in a Yemeni jail environment. A year is an awfully long time for this to have persisted, and without any confirmation of his whereabouts or well being, I think there should be a lot of concern.”
Seche said he was unsure if the US “had knowledge of [Mobley’s] detention” in 2010. He said he recollected that Mobley traveled to Yemen in 2008 “with the idea of affiliating himself with the al-Qaida movement in Yemen”, something Islam rejects, saying the family moved to Yemen so Mobley could study Arabic and religion.
Mobley, as of Wednesday, is alive. Islam said she spoke to him then in what has become a series of sporadic phone calls about every six or seven weeks, which come without notice. As she told Vice, when the Houthis overran Sana’a in late January, Mobley called home and said he feared they would kill everyone in his military jail.
With the old government overthrown, she said, Mobley has some degree of hope. But while trying to remain optimistic as she raises their three children, she is unsure if his hope has any basis. She fears that his new reluctance to discuss his treatment is an indicator that his life remains in danger.
“Whereas before he would mention it, even if he wouldn’t talk about it in great detail … you would have to try to pull it out of him … now he’s not even mentioning it at all,” Islam said. “He doesn’t say anything at all.”