Yemen: Shari'a Replacing State Law

Publication Date: 
October 8, 2011
Army forces move into Zinjibar, the capital of southern Abyan province, after freeing it from the hands of Islamist militants.

Amid regular military bombardment, the Abyan governorate of southern Yemen has witnessed the rapid deterioration of state institutions and the rule of law. Local Islamic law (sharia) courts have risen in this vacuum to govern communities’ daily affairs.

Lahj - The situation in Abyan governorate is markedly different than in the rest of the country. While most governorates have witnessed weekly protests demanding the regime’s overthrow, Abyan is subject to regular Yemeni and American air and ground attacks against Islamist militants who control much of the area. The governorate is now in chaos and state agencies near collapse. Without a functioning civil government, sharia and people’s courts have proliferated and come to govern people’s affairs.

The Ansar al-Sharia group, which controls Abyan’s largest city of Jaar, has established Sharia courts that enforce Islamic law, filling the void left by the security and judicial authorities’ collapse. The group has already begun conducting sharia-based trials in an attempt to gain the support of the people. Local sources in Jaar report that three sharia sentences were carried out last month, including an execution and hand amputation.

A 30-year-old man was executed after he was accused of murder. A 15-year-old boy named Maher had his hand amputated by the court because he allegedly stole copper cables and sold them to a pawn dealer. Maher passed away two days later due to complications related to the amputation.

Ansar al-Sharia (commonly referred to as the mujahidin) is one of the militant groups that took over Abyan governorate in May after the national army’s withdrawal from the area. Al-Sharia controlled the regional capital city of Zinjibar for three months before the army and allied tribes were able to defeat them. They consequently fled to Jaar and took refuge in remote mountainous areas.

The militant group has stirred a lot of controversy among Yemenis. According to sources in Jaar, some of the group’s leaders are well known and belong to state security agencies. The same sources also say that there is a group of “misled” youth who have joined Ansar al-Sharia.

Sharia courts are also operating beyond parts of southern Yemen. In other tribal areas in Abyan, Ansar al-Sharia has no presence, yet residents have established disorganized sharia courts. These formations are largely due to the absence of security and state institutions in the area.

In this year alone, sharia courts in the tribal Yafa area have carried out several convictions, including three death sentences. The courts, which are also known as mediation committees, have resolved many personal disputes and tribal conflicts by ruling according to sharia, without consideration of state laws or the judiciary. Rather, the courts tend to be run by tribal leaders and prominent religious figures.

Professor of psychology at Aden University, Hassan Bakri, comments on the renewed application of sharia sentences. “Religion is influential in society. Some groups have exploited the fact that Yemenis are a religious people in order to achieve different goals.”

Political activist Adib al-Sayyed offers a different perspective. He believes that desperate economic conditions have driven so many young people in Abyan to al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia. As for the sharia courts, he says, “they are the result of the absence of law and the state. Consequently, anyone believing they can replace the state authority will apply rulings as they see fit.”

Saleh, a member of a mediation committee in Yafa, tells al-Akhbar that the reason why people now rely on people’s courts is because “the state has become incapable of performing its duties in solving people’s problems. We do our share in resolving these issues and reconciling people, otherwise the problems accumulate and become more complicated.”

Saleh adds, “This does not mean that we have replaced the state. We have found ourselves obliged to perform these tasks because of the state’s inability to do so. We need to maintain security and stability in our areas.”

The implementation of sharia sentences in Jaar has been widely discussed by Yemeni activists on social media sites and forums, especially after a video circulated of an execution by Ansar al-Sharia. It is rumored that President Ali Abdallah Saleh relinquished the region to the group in order to drive southern Yemen into chaos.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


 Army forces move into the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar, the capital of southern Abyan province, after freeing it from the hands of Islamist militants. (Credit: REUTERS - Stringer)