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Women's rights campaigner warns of Islamists behind Yemen uprising

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Women's rights campaigner warns of Islamists behind Yemen uprising

A campaigner for women's rights in Yemen has claimed that key figures in the anti-government protest movement are abusing human rights and have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities during the unrest.

"To those who talk of a pro-democracy Arab spring in my country," she told the Observer in London, where she is seeking asylum, "I would say that it was not President Saleh who threatened my life or made me too frightened to carry on with my work or stay in Yemen, it was the opposition."

"Sara" does not want to give her real name out of fear for the consequences for her family and colleagues back in Yemen, but she is anxious to highlight what she believes is a profound misunderstanding in the west of what is really going on in her country, where over 400 people have died since the start of the uprising.

"I welcomed the protests when the young people first starting gathering in Sana'a in what they have renamed Change Square. Yemen needs change and an end to the corruption, but when the shooting and shelling started in March, the people in the square were the innocents caught in the middle of the real battle for power that is still going on."

In the early months of the uprising, "Sara" had carried on with the work she had been doing for 20 years – encouraging young women into education and the professions.

"My work has always been unpopular with some people who say it is against Islam, but each time they accused me I was able to show that what they said wasn't true."

Though today only her hair is covered by a scarf, she carries with her treasured photographs of herself at work in Yemen, always wearing a full-face veil, with just her eyes showing. In some she is greeting UN and EU visitors who came to lend support to the projects.

She and her family had friends among the protesters in Change Square, but she preferred, she says, to stay at her desk.

"Without knowledge, learning, training, there is no future," she explains.

But then those more conservative forces who had in the past attacked her work, or tried to take it over and run it on more traditional Islamic principles, used the chaos into which Yemen had descended to start harassing her again. She had to stop everything she was doing, they demanded, until the president had been overthrown.

When she refused, suspecting their motives, they threatened her. At first she resisted the intimidation – though she admits she was frightened – and carried on, even when she heard that her name had been included in a list of targets broadcast by opposition forces.

Life was in danger

The last straw, though, came when she was told by foreign human rights workers that they had information that her life was in danger. She reluctantly decided to flee her homeland.

"I don't blame the protesters in the square," she says. "They are mostly young and innocent. They want money and jobs. But even there, their tents are in groups, each with their own idea about the future, all very different. And behind them is sheltering the real opposition. It is taking advantage of these protesters, claiming to speak for them, but in reality it contains some of those who are the cause of corruption in the first place in Saleh's government."

She specifically accuses three key figures in the struggle. The first is General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar – a former ally of President Saleh who changed sides early in the uprising, but whose forces, she says, have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities during the unrest, including firing on tribal leaders (Mohsen's brother among them) and children who came to urge him to reach a compromise with the regime.

And the other two are Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar and his brother Hameed, leaders of the largest tribal grouping in Sana'a, allies of Mohsen, but with their own separate militia.

All three men, she warns, have close ties with the main opposition party in Yemen, al-Islah. One of its leaders is Abdul Majid al-Zindani, labelled a "terrorist" by both the US and the UN and often described as a key figure in the al-Qaida group that has been able to operate in Yemen's political vacuum.

These are the forces that have constantly threatened her work, she says. She had in the past managed to keep them at bay because the Saleh government, for all its faults, upheld the right of women to be educated.

Now her country is engulfed in what she describes as "madness", though, they are able to threaten her life with impunity. "Is this what you in the west mean by the Arab spring?" she asks.

"Sara" arrived in London in the summer with only a small suitcase and currently is being supported in her asylum claim by the Cardinal Hume Centre. Everything she has worked for throughout her life is back in Yemen, she says, but her projects are now closed because of the violence.

"I like travelling," she reflects, "but not forever. As soon as I am not in danger, I will go back, but I don't know when that will be."