Khaled Abdul-Aziz did not attempt to cover up his "crime" when he was tried by members of Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
"I admit my guilt," he said.
After the man confessed to stealing public property, the Ansar al-Sharia group operating in the al-Hajar area between Jaar and Zinjibar in south Yemen cut off his right hand.
In an interview with a Yemeni journalist, published by Al-Wasat weekly in November, Abdul-Aziz talked about his trial before a "court" set up by Ansar al-Sharia, another name for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
"My crime is theft, which has become prevalent in our area," he said. "Extreme poverty and hunger drove me to steal. I am not a thief. I stole out of necessity."
Abdul-Aziz was subjected to hadd punishment, and his right hand was cut off at the wrist. He received a "consolation" sum of only 120 riyals (54 cents).
Similar incidents have been occurring repeatedly in areas that Ansar al-Sharia controls. The practice of severe punishment raises questions about their legitimacy as it relates to Sharia, especially the applicability of hadd punishment in a country mired in extreme poverty, and whose government cannot provide its citizens with the basic necessities.
Ansar al-Sharia (supporters of Sharia law) is the new name AQAP adopted in May. The al-Qaeda brand, through which the organisation used to establish links that would later become regional affiliates, was abandoned by the organisation's Gulf affiliate, which opted to adopt an entirely opposite course and is currently active under the name Ansar al-Sharia.
This suggests that al-Qaeda chose a name that it believes has the potential to gain public acceptance because the Gulf population is proud of their Islamic heritage. According to this thinking, the local population would not be inclined to oppose the implementation of Islamic Sharia law, even though this doesn't mean that they subscribe to al-Qaeda's or Ansar al-Sharia's interpretation of the teachings of Islam, including the application of hadd punishment while Yemen is undergoing economic hardship and political conflict.
The International Food Policy Research Institute stated in reports published this year that since 2006 the percentage of Yemenis living in poverty has risen 8% to 42% of the total population. Thirty-two percent of Yemenis are unable to obtain adequate amounts of food, and 58% of children are suffering from malnutrition. Yemen ranks 74th out of 85 developing countries on the Global Hunger Index.
The high poverty rates raise questions about the legitimacy of such actions by Ansar al-Sharia, especially in light of historical evidence showing that hadd was not implemented in all circumstance in the past and was suspended in times of war or extreme poverty. Hadd punishments were suspended during the reign of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab when drought gripped the Hijaz region for many years, causing the population to endure an economic crisis that lasted over nine months and resulted in the death of many citizens.
Few people believe that Sharia authorises cutting off the hand of an impoverished thief when the state fails to provide daily necessities to destitute people who resort to theft as a means to provide for themselves and their dependents.
However, Ansar al-Sharia judges do not seem to be convinced that Yemen's conditions call for suspending application of hadd in areas under their control, despite the controversy over the legality of turning to amputation, flogging and killing. It is also not clear how Ansar al-Sharia acquired a mandate to apply hadd and act like a state within a state.
Abu Bishr, an Ansar al-Sharia "judge" in Jaar in south Yemen, said the population welcomed them when they declared they had arrived to "apply God's Sharia law," which should not be surprising in a conservative country like Yemen. Islamists have been active in Jaar since 1994, following the defeat of South Yemen communists.
Abu Bishr said in an interview with Al-Wasat that the group did not cut off the hands of "poor" thieves and only applied hadd punishment against individuals who stole to obtain qat or illegal drugs.
When asked about subjecting an impoverished person like Abdul-Aziz to hadd, Abu Bishr said, "Most of those who were subjected to hadd are young and capable of working, and there are many employment opportunities in the area. There is no famine as many claim. The thieves only use that as an excuse to steal. We have thieves in custody who were not subjected to hadd, and we did not have their hands cut off because they claimed to be poor."
It is difficult to confirm or refute the claims of the Ansar al-Sharia "judge" because of the security situation in Yemen, including regions in the south where al-Qaeda is active.
Muslim scholars argue that authority over application of hadd belongs to the head of state within the judicial system, and it must be implemented following Sharia guidelines governing such matters such as the age of puberty and adulthood. Officials should take into consideration whether compelling circumstances led offenders to commit the crimes they are accused of.
Mohammed al-Akwaa, a scholar who is the mufti of Thamar province and a member of the Yemeni Scholar's Association, said in an previous interview with Al-Shorfa that hadd must be implemented in accordance with Sharia law, which clearly states that the head of state has the sole authority to implement hadd, exclusive of any other party or group.
The Seyaj Organisation for Childhood Protection monitored several crimes committed by al-Qaeda in Yemen, including cutting off the hand of a 15-year-old boy accused of stealing electric cables. The boy's hand was hung in a public square. In another case, a man who was charged with stealing had his hand cut off as punishment, and later died of his wounds. The organisation's data show that more than 50,000 families were displaced from their villages and cities, virtually emptying them of their populations.
Ahmed al-Qurashi, head of Seyaj, told Al-Shorfa, "The crimes and abuses al-Qaeda committed in Jaar that were reported are just the tip of the iceberg. Much more remains shielded because of the tight control the organisation maintains over the city. People are afraid and cannot challenge the organisation, and there a lot of crimes that people in Jaar cannot reveal."
Al-Qurashi said children, whether they are child soldiers who die in armed confrontations or civilians, are affected by the war being fought between Ansar al-Sharia and the Yemeni army more than any other segment of society.
In light of news about citizens who are leaving areas that are controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, the controversial application of hadd, and widespread poverty and unemployment, questions must be raised about AQAP's attempt to rebrand itself as Ansar al-Sharia. If the goal is to avoid using the al-Qaeda name because it is no longer an appealing brand, which is clearly the case, the Ansar al-Sharia name does not seem to be achieving its intended result either.