SANAA, (Reuters) – A Yemeni court has halved the prison sentence of an al Qaeda suspect on the U.S. list of most wanted militants after he won an appeal, judicial sources said on Saturday.
Jaber Elbaneh, a Yemeni-American accused by the United States of being a major figure in the fatal bombing of the U.S. warship Cole in 2000, was one of 36 militants who contested their sentences in connection with attacks on oil facilities in Yemen’s Hadramout province.
The court reduced Elbaneh’s sentence to 5 from 10 years, with new sentences for the rest of the group ranging between 3 and 15 years, compared with 5 to 15-year jail terms handed down previously.
Elbaneh is on the list of “Most Wanted Terrorists” in the United States, where he is charged with providing material support to al Qaeda, U.S. diplomatic sources say. He was one of 23 prisoners, including convicted al Qaeda militants, who tunnelled their way out of a jail in Sanaa in February 2006. He turned himself in to Yemeni authorities in May 2007 and was allowed to walk free after agreeing to attend his trial, until a court sent him back to jail earlier this year after the United States complained.
Yemen joined the U.S. “war on terrorism” after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden is still viewed in the West as a haven for Islamist militants.
Dozens of militants are jailed in Yemen for involvement in bombings of Western targets and clashes with authorities.
Yemen says Elbaneh also helped to plan the 2002 attack on the French oil supertanker Limburg off Yemen’s coast. He is linked to the “Lackawanna Six”, a group of Yemeni-Americans who attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2001. The cell was named after the men’s home town in New York state.
The 2006 jailbreak embarrassed the government and raised questions among Western allies about Yemen’s security measures.
Al Qaeda in Yemen vowed in January to release its prisoners from the country’s jails to retaliate for the killing of militants by the government of the Arabian Peninsula country.
The United States asked Yemen to hand over Elbaneh when he was in Yemeni custody in January 2004. He was never extradited.