The trial of 19 alleged al Qaeda members had been designed to showcase how serious Yemen was in the fight against terror. But the Islamic militants, accused of plotting to assassinate Westerners and blow up a hotel frequented by Americans, were all acquitted for lack of proof, the presiding judge ruled Saturday.
Prosecutors had failed to provide "adequate evidence that the defendants were plotting attacks against foreigners or planning to assassinate Americans in Yemen," the verdict said.
Critics say the decision points to the Yemeni president's bid to win the radical Islamic vote ahead of elections due in September.
Several of defendants did confess to having been in Iraq to fight US troops there and had Iraqi stamps on their passport, the court heard. "But this does not violate (Yemeni) law," the judge said.
"Islamic Sharia law permits jihad against occupiers," he said.
Mohammed al-Maqaleh, an expert in Islamist affairs who frequently appears in Yemeni media, described the verdict as a "shock."
"The judiciary is collaborating with the Islamist extremists and this verdict is politicized," al-Maqaleh said on the telephone. He said it was another sign that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was trying to drum up support from Muslim radicals ahead of the coming presidential elections.
Saleh has long-standing ties with Islamic militants, who have stood by the administration since the 1980s. They sided with his northern government in the 1994 civil war and the successful battle against secessionists from the secular south.
Saleh has announced he will again run for president, breaking earlier promises to step down after 28 years at the helm of this impoverished Arab nation.
In defiance to Saleh, five Yemeni opposition parties have chosen Faisal bin Shamlan, a prominent businessman and former Cabinet minister, to challenge him. Bin Shamlan has spoken out against al Qaeda and won respect for denouncing corruption in this U.S. ally.
Ossama bin Laden's family originally came from Yemen, which was long regarded as a haven for al Qaeda. But the country, which was the scene of the Oct. 2000 suicide bombing against the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors, joined America's war on terror after Sept. 11 and waged a crackdown on militants.
Muslim extremists remain popular, and the four-month trial of the suspected terrorists often produced elements of a farce, as an at times raucous crowd followed heated discussions between the defendants and the judge.
All but one of the alleged militants have denied the charges, several stating they were arrested simply because they had fought in Iraq. But one defendant, Ali al-Harthi, acknowledged in court that he had returned home to perpetrate the Jihad, or holy war, against Americans in Yemen.
From behind the bars where they stood clad in blue prison uniforms Saturday, the 14 Yemeni and five Saudi defendants greeted the verdict with cries of "Allahu akbar" (God is great).
Families received the decision with cheers and claps. Some burst into tears.
"This (verdict) is a change for the judiciary in Yemen," said Ali al-Kurdi, one of the defendants. "It is fair, something unusual."
Al-Kurdi, from Yemen, has spent three years in Afghanistan in nineties and was charged with being linked to al Qaeda, authorities said.
The state prosecutor appealed the collective acquittal, and the defendants were brought back to their cells at the intelligence services' jail where they have been held for more than two years.