Yemen: Death by Carbon Monoxide

Daraj
September 9, 2021
Five years after the death of Yemeni journalist Mohamed al-Absi, who was investigating high level corruption in the country, the investigation into his case has not produced any results, despite seemingly compelling evidence he was poisoned in a truly gruesome manner. 

On a cold night in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, investigative journalist Mohamed Abdo Al-Absi went out for dinner after a long day of reviewing dozens of documents about corruption in the Yemeni oil and gas sector. Little did he know that his dinner on Tuesday, December 20, 2016, would turn out to be his last supper. 

Al-Absi ate and went home. Less than two hours later, he ran out of breath and died shortly afterwards. Silenced weapons and (improvised) explosive devices are no longer the only means used in assassinations. There are today many other options, at least one of which remains unknown, which is the one that killed Mohamed Abdo Al-Absi. Most likely it was some sort of poison. But fact is, nearly five years after that fatal night in Sanaa, Al-Absi’s death remains a mystery. 

Mohamed Abdo Al-Absi

Primary Suspect

Following Al-Absi’s sudden death, Yemeni activists and journalists were divided. Some believed his death was due to a heart attack. Others though he was assassinated. Proponents of the first hypothesis outweighed the second, because the assassination was not carried out by shooting, as was common at the time in Yemen. 

However, in February 2019, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen reported that journalist Mohamed Abdo al-Absi, who was investigating the financial activities of leaders in the Houthi Movement (Ansar Allah) had been murdered. 

The results of a 2017 forensic report indicated the presence of a high level of carbon monoxide in Al-Absi’s blood. Hence, the Panel of Experts report concluded his death was not due to natural causes, but to poisoning.

Another report issued by the UN Panel of Experts was submitted to the UN Security Council on January 25, 2019. It stated that Al-Absi was investigating the role of the leaders of the Houthi Movement in companies importing oil. These funds are a huge financial resource to them and several people mentioned on the international sanctions list.

We started our research reading the Panel of Expert’s report and gathered numerous testimonies that confirm what was stated in the report, namely that Al-Absi was poisoned in a heinous murder while working on an investigation on the involvement of Houthi leaders in buying and selling oil.

Al-Absi traced the wealth of influential figures, studied their sources and the oil and gas derivatives market to learn who was behind them. He furthermore documented the manipulation of public budgets and tracked arms deals concerning the Ministry of Defense.  

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The Start of the Battle

After the Houthi Movement entered the north, monopolized the oil industry and restricted the media, Al-Absi continued to talk publicly about such matters, as well as corruption. He published dozens of articles and investigations about the Houthi monopoly in the oil sector on his Facebook page and his blog, which were the only platforms he posted on. Al-Absi wrote reports revealing the corruption of several parties, including the Houthi Movement, which took control of Sanaa on September 21, 2014. 

During the last days of his life, Al-Absi sent dozens of private messages to colleagues, journalists and politicians, among whom the former leader of the Houthi Movement who later defected, Ali Al-Bukhiti, who published the documents Al-Absi had sent. The latter sent the same message to Mohamed Al-Ruba, a TV presenter at the Belqis channel, who also published part of the documents.

These messages were a prelude to something Al-Absi felt was closing in on him. The documents revealed the corruption of Houthi leaders and others he had tracked for years and years. During that period, Al-Absi received threats through social media and by phone, as well as on the street near his home from unknown individuals. It is then he began to feel the danger.

We met journalist and writer Khaled Al-Dhubhani (pseudonym) in Sana’a. He said that Al-Absi had sent him too messages in which he talked about his investigation into Mohamed Abdulsalam, the most prominent Houthi leader, and his control of the Yemen oil market. Al-Absi told him he had received threats to stop working on the investigation. If not, his end would be near … 

Al-Dhubhani advised Al-Absi to stop publishing the documents, to end his investigation, and get out of Sanaa. But Al-Absi did not. Al-Dhubhani was shocked when he heard the news of Al-Absi’s death. 

Mohamed’s Sister Qaboul

Following Mohamed al-Absi’s sudden death on December 20, 2016, and the autopsy report that indicated he was poisoned, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for an independent investigation.

“We deplore this journalist’s death in what appears to have been a horrible murder,” said Alexandra El Khazen, head of the RSF Middle East desk. “We request an impartial and independent international investigation, one removed from local political pressure, to establish the exact circumstances of this death, so that his family can eventually obtain justice.”

Qaboul Al-Absi, Mohamed’s sister, said that he continued to receive threats. One day, his car windshield was smashed right in front of his house. 

According to Qaboul, he also regularly received phone calls telling him to stop the investigative reports he was working on. 

According to Qaboul, the last day in Mohamed’s life was “normal.” Only when he returned home in the evening, things were anything but normal. Mohamed was sweating heavily, which was unusual, especially in one of Sanaa’s severe winters. 

“Shortly after, we heard his wife screaming loudly,” said Qaboul. “We rushed to his room and found him convulsing with his eyes open. Brown and yellow foam was coming out of his mouth. His pulse had stopped completely. And we could not carry him because his body was heavier. His abdomen were bloated and when we arrived at a hospital near the house, his entire body had turned blue. Then the doctor told us that he had passed away.” 

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Death by Carbon Monoxide

The medical examiner’s autopsy report was issued on February 2, 2017, some two months after Al-Absi’s last supper. It indicated that his death was caused by inhaling carboxyhemoglobin, which interacts with large amounts of carbon monoxide and causes death if the amount of carboxyhemoglobin reaches over 50% in the blood. 

According to the autopsy report, the amount of carboxyhemoglobin in Al-Absi’s blood samples reached 67%. At such a level, it produces a headache accompanied by anxiety, confusion, a sense of dizziness, as well as visual impairment and nausea. Vomiting and losing consciousness will occur when doing the slightest physical effort.

When the carbon monoxide reaches a level of 1% of the inhaled oxygen, the blood contains some 50 to 80% of carboxyhemoglobin, which will lead to coma, convulsions, respiratory failure, and finally death. In a case of a gradual carbon monoxide poisoning, the victim will notice losing his ability to exert any physical effort, while facing difficulties in breathing. Also, the victim will sweat a lot and develop a fever. 

Physical signs accompanying carbon monoxide poisoning include liver enlargement, skin alterations, an increase in white blood cells, bleeding, in addition to the possible presence of glucose and albumin in the urine. One of the most dangerous consequences of being poisoned with this gas is cerebral edema and an increase in cerebral pressure as a result of the lack of oxygen. The heart muscle too will suffer from the lack of oxygen, which will be shown in an electrocardiogram test.

We contacted Dr. Jamal Al-Hasani, who explained that this substance cannot be injected into the body by any means. It is a gas. Therefore, the probability of an assassination in the case of Muhammed Al-Absi is small. It is only possible if Al-Absi was in a place where air was regularly injected. 

A Picture of Mohamed’s Grave

According to information obtained by our team, Al-Absi was asking the son of Tawfiq Abdulrahim, a well-known Yemeni businessman, for documents that could reveal the Houthi Movement’s involvement in the oil trade. What Al-Absi did not know was that the son at the time was detained by the Houthis when he received the messages. 

Tawfiq Abdulrahim’s son then briefed them on what Al-Absi wanted and what was his next investigation is about. The Houthi Movement has never commented on Al Absi’s death, even though all evidence points to them.

Another testimony we obtained stems from a journalist close to Muhammad al-Absi, Wadad al-Badawi. She said that, a few days before his death, Mohamed had called her from a new number and asked her to meet him.Wadad explained that Al-Absi had asked to meet her at Coffee Corner, one of Sanaa’s most famous cafes, before it was closed by the Houthis. When Al-Absi met with Wadad he told her he was afraid and that the source who provided him with information and documents – a reference to Tawfiq Abdulrahim’s son –  had been arrested and that the Houthi Movement had seen their communication. He felt they had gotten closer to him than ever before.

Attempts to Bury the CaseAl Absi’s family and many of his colleagues told us they were still waiting for the investigation into his case to be completed. Almost five years have passed and nothing has happened. Najeeb Al-Hajj is the lawyer who took it upon himself to follow up on Al-Absi’s case. 

According to him, the judiciary has dealt with Al-Absi’s file with indifference. At first, he did not even receive a response on his inquiries. The casefile was submitted to a prosecutor, but he only slowed down procedures to stall the case, Al Hajj claimed. 

The prime suspects were summoned to appear before the prosecutor and the judiciary. Yet, after that, which happened nearly two years ago, the case was closed and no further action was taken. Al-Hajj said he submitted several requests to add missing information to the file, but the prosecutor, Abdulsalam Al Dhaheri, ignored him and neglected the case. 

“We tried to revive the case once more by submitting a complaint with the Chief Prosecutor on February 11, 2020,” said Al Hajj. “He issued a directive to refer the case to public prosecutor Yasser Al-Zindani. Yet, he in turn did not take any action either. The case was deliberately halted by the authorities and some influential figures, because they claimed it bore aspects of ‘terrorism.’”

Al Hajj decided not try to bring the media into the case, because he did not want the case to be suppressed and buried. He still receives promises from the prosecutor who claims he is set to take action. The Al Absi case is a thorny one. While there is a compelling evidence that he died from poisoning, the authorities are seemingly working on burying the case. Al Hajj furthermore mentioned there are clues about people close to the Houthi Movement being involved.

Their names are even mentioned in the file. However, he refused to mention them in order to keep the case on course. Al-Hajj added that he is the only one left in the defense team, which once consisted of 12 lawyers. All others withdrew from the case. They apologized for not continuing mainly out of fear for their lives. 

In the Yemen war, which has raged for six long years, many Yemenis, throughout the country, have paid a hefty price. This includes journalists. Everything points at the fact that journalist Mohamed Al-Absi’s was murdered with a poisonous gas, unlike the other 48 Yemeni journalists who have been killed in the course of the war. They were simply shot dead. 

Their files remain all piled up in the archives of the country’s courts and prosecutor’s offices, while the perpetrators roam free. It is a living nightmare haunting journalism and freedom of expression in Yemen.

This investigation was accomplished with support of the Gulf Center for Human Rights as part of the project to investigate crimes committed against journalists in the Middle East and North Africa.

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