In search of glory, Yemeni athlete drowns in Med trying to reach Europe

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A worker loads onto an ambulance the body of Yemeni Kung Fu champion Hilal al-Haj, who drowned in the Mediterranean, upon its arrival at Aden International Airport in Yemen's second city of Aden on September 26, 2019. (FP / Saleh Al-Obeidi)
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Saeed al-Haj, the brother of Yemeni Kung Fu champion Hilal al-Haj who drowned in the Mediterranean, waits to receive his brother's body at Aden International Airport in Yemen's southern city of Aden on September 26, 2019. (AFP / Saleh Al-Obeidi)
Updated 27 September 2019

In search of glory, Yemeni athlete drowns in Med trying to reach Europe

  • “When (Hajj) screamed, I thought it was because he was tired. I didn’t know he was drownin,” friend says
  • Hilal Al-Hajj was a Kung Fu champion, who had also racked up a series of medals from Asian and Arab championships

DUBAI: Slim and with a tight-trimmed beard, Yemeni Kung Fu champion Hilal Al-Hajj dreamed of finding athletic glory in Europe, but a risky sea journey to get there ended in tragedy.
The 25-year-old athlete drowned in the Mediterranean after being swept away as he attempted to swim from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Melilla last week.
His family in Yemen’s rebel-held capital Sanaa was expected on Friday to bury the 2011 Yemen Kung Fu champion, who had also racked up a series of medals from Asian and Arab championships.
“He was looking for a country that would appreciate his talent and recognize his value as a human being and athlete,” his older brother Saeed said.
“He loved life, he detested war,” he told AFP by phone.
Saeed saw his brother just hours before he headed to Morocco, where on September 16 he attempted the dangerous swim to the Spanish enclave.
The athlete was proud of his heritage, his brother said, but competing in a country pushed to the brink of famine by a years-long war between the government and rebels had brought challenges.
Yemen was rife with “contempt” and “injustice,” Saeed said, adding his brother was treated unfairly by the Houthi rebels who took over the capital in 2014 despite taking no side in Yemen’s conflict.
After returning to Sanaa from a championship in Azerbaijan, where Hajj won third place representing Yemen, he expected to be celebrated by rebels.
“The answer was painful. They told him that no one had asked of him to raise the flag of Yemen,” Saeed said.

Swept by powerful waves
Years of war have made leaving and entering Yemen nearly impossible, but Hajj faced even greater difficulties when attempting to cross over the heavily fortified land barrier surrounding Melilla, on the northern coast of Morocco.
After two months of failed attempts, he decided to swim for it, his brother said.
“It was a short distance. People before him have tried and succeeded,” he told AFP.
“My brother was athletic, it seemed like it would be easy, but tragedy struck and he was swept away by a powerful wave.”
A friend accompanying Hajj on the swim who managed to make it safely to the Spanish enclave said the journey was “extremely difficult.”
“The waves were so high,” the friend, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP.
“When (Hajj) screamed, I thought it was because he was tired. I didn’t know he was drowning.”
Hajj’s body was recovered and flown into Yemen’s southern city of Aden on Thursday. It was expected to be carried on to the capital in an ambulance, Saeed said.
Sanaa airport has been under blockade since 2017 by a Saudi-led military coalition backing the government against the Iran-aligned Houthis.
Hajj’s father and younger brother are expected to arrive from Saudi Arabia to attend the funeral.
“He always said that we can’t reach our sports goals by staying in Yemen,” Hajj’s friend Jamal el-Sabri told AFP.
“The failure of the sports institutions, corruption and nepotism destroy sports and talent. The more time passes, life is becoming more difficult and our ambitions are dying.”


Militant sentenced to 19 years for role in Benghazi attacks

Updated 20 min 35 sec ago

Militant sentenced to 19 years for role in Benghazi attacks

  • Al-Imam is the second militant convicted in the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel
  • The head of the extremist militia who directed the siege, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was convicted in 2017 on terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 22 years in prison

NEW YORK: A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a Libyan militant to more than 19 years in prison for his role in the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including the US ambassador.
A jury convicted Mustafa Al-Imam last year of conspiring to support the extremist militia that launched the fiery assaults on the US compounds but deadlocked on 15 other counts.
The attacks, aimed at killing American personnel, prompted a political fracas in which Republicans accused the Obama administration of a bungled response.
Al-Imam was sentenced to a total of 236 months behind bars. He is the second militant convicted in the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, communications specialist Sean Smith and security officers Tyrone Snowden Woods and Glen Anthony Doherty.
The head of the extremist militia who directed the siege, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was convicted in 2017 on terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Khattala was accused of driving to the diplomatic mission on Sept. 11, 2012, and breaching the main gate with militants who attacked with assault rifles, grenades and other weapons.
The initial attack killed Stevens and Smith and set the mission ablaze. Woods and Doherty were later killed at a CIA annex.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors in Washington asked US District Judge Christopher Cooper to send a message to others contemplating attacks on Americans overseas, saying Al-Imam deserved the maximum 35-year sentence.
“In the current geopolitical environment, terrorists must understand that there are harsh consequences for attacking diplomatic posts and harming US personnel — particularly a US ambassador,” Assistant US Attorney John Cummings wrote in a court filing.
Defense attorneys said Al-Imam made a “tremendous mistake” by damaging and looting US property after the attacks. But they insisted there was no evidence he intended to harm any Americans, noting jurors could not reach a verdict on the murder charges Al-Imam faced.
“Mustafa Al-Imam is a frail, uneducated and simple man,” they wrote in a court filing. “He is not a fighter, an ideologue or a terrorist. He is a former convenience store clerk whose main loves in life are soccer and family.”
Al-Imam was tried in a civilian court despite the Trump administration’s earlier contention that such suspects are better sent to Guantanamo Bay. His arrest, five years after the attack, was the first publicly known operation since President Donald Trump took office targeting those accused of involvement in Benghazi.
Prosecutors acknowledged there was no evidence that Al-Imam “directly caused” the killings at the US compounds. But they said he aligned himself with Khattala and acted as his “eyes and ears” at the height of the attacks.
During a four-week trial in Washington, prosecutors pointed to phone records that showed Al-Imam was in the vicinity of the mission and placed an 18-minute call to Khattala during a “pivotal moment” of the attacks.
Al-Imam also entered the US compound, prosecutors said, and took sensitive material that identified the location of the CIA annex about a mile away from the mission as the evacuation point for Department of State personnel.
In interviews with law enforcement following his 2017 capture in Misrata, Libya, he admitted stealing a phone and map from the US mission.