A Year into New Government, Risk of Impunity for Current, Past Crimes
(Sanaa) – Yemen’s transition government should take urgent steps to ensure justice for serious human rights violations during the 2011 uprising, and since the inauguration one year ago of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. As part of those efforts, the authorities should immediately carry out an investigation into the deaths of at least four protesters in clashes with state security forces in Aden on February 20 and 21, 2013.
Impartial investigations, redress for victims, and vetting of state security forces implicated in serious crimes are crucial to ensure that the transition government breaks with the impunity that marked the 33-year rule of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Human Rights Watch said.
President Hadi, who was inaugurated February 25, 2012, has taken steps toward wresting the security forces from the control of Saleh’s close relatives and addressing the grievances of south Yemen residents. He also ordered an end to any use of child soldiers. However Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the generally slow pace of reform, including the president’s failure to appoint the members of a committee he announced in September, 2012, to investigate human rights crimes committed during the uprising.
“Despite some noticeable improvements in Yemen, there have been new human rights violations, and entrenched interests on all sides have stymied efforts to punish those responsible,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “President Hadi should crack down on rights abusers and consolidate the rule of law.”
On February 15, 2013, Human Rights Watch completed a two-week visit to Yemen that included meetings with numerous government and security officials, party leaders, and civil society members from across the political spectrum.
Human Rights Watch found credible evidence of new violations that include attacks on media and on largely peaceful protesters by both government and non-state forces. Government officials as well as influential sheiks and opposition leaders should set a no-tolerance policy for such attacks, Human Rights Watch said.
On February 20 and 21 in Aden, Central Security Forces opened fire on southern protesters, including some who were armed with rocks and guns, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The protesters were attempting to interrupt anniversary celebrations by members of the Islamist-leaning party Islah for Hadi’s single-candidate election as president on February 21, 2012.
In the process at least four protesters were shot and killed, and at least 15 others were wounded by gunfire, according to local human rights activists. Some activists and a local medical worker told Human Rights Watch the number of dead could be as high as 14, with up to 47 wounded. Security forces also detained at least two leaders of the Southern Movement (Herak), Qassem Askar and Hussein Bin Shouaib. Yemeni government officials said six Central Security Force members were wounded in the clashes. On February 22, pro-secession gunmen attacked a military checkpoint in Aden, killing one soldier and injuring three others, the news agency Xinhua reported.
Yemeni authorities should investigate these incidents, Human Rights Watch said. They should also investigate previous incidents in Aden resulting in deaths and serious injuries, including the killings of two protesters by Central Security Forces on February 11.
Law enforcement officials should uphold international policing standards when carrying out their duties, Human Rights Watch said. Firearms should only be used in response to an imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.
Intentional lethal use of firearms is permissible only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint in such use, and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved.
In meetings with Yemeni government officials, Human Rights Watch emphasized that accountability for past crimes was a necessary component of military and political reforms.
Stalled Transitional Justice
Human Rights Watch urged President Hadi to use his executive powers to reform and enact a long-delayed transitional justice law that would, among other measures, create a historical record of serious human rights crimes of the past and provide redress to victims of those abuses. The law has stalled in parliament because of bitter disagreements over the time span it would cover. Some factions want it to address only 2011 while others want the law to date to Yemen’s 1994 civil war or to include Saleh’s entire 33-year presidency.
The latest version of the law, submitted to parliament by the president’s office, would remove the creation of a historical record, and limit the scope of investigations to 2011. This draft also explicitly states that any investigations conducted under the law would be subject to the January 2012 immunity law that parliament, at the behest of Gulf Cooperation Council states, as well as the European Union and the United States, granted Saleh and those who served with him.
If parliament fails to pass a meaningful transitional justice law, Hadi can sign the law himself, under the terms of a two-year transition blueprint that grants the president authority to pass laws unilaterally if parliament fails to reach a consensus. The blueprint was facilitated by the United Nations and signed by both Saleh’s General Peoples Congress party and the Joint Meetings Parties political opposition. “The draft transitional justice law has been gutted to the point of nothingness,” Stork said. “President Hadi should use the authority he has to approve a law that delivers justice, not a whitewash.”
Human Rights Watch also called on the Yemeni authorities to reopen a criminal investigation into the so-called Friday of Dignity massacre of March 18, 2011, the deadliest attack of the uprising by pro-Saleh gunmen against largely peaceful protesters. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that the previous government’s investigation was marred by blatant political interference and a failure to investigate evidence that may have implicated high government officials.
The attack, which killed at least 45 protesters and wounded 200 others, became an emblem of the brutal response to the uprising by security forces and pro-government gangs. Attorney General Ali Ahmed Nasser al-Awash, in his February 14 meeting with Human Rights Watch, denied any flaws in the investigation. However, Justice Minister Morshed Ali al-Arshani told Human Rights Watch a few days earlier that he agreed a new investigation is needed.
In its report on the attack, Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to set a date for Yemen to carry out fair and impartial investigations into major human rights crimes committed during 2011, and to authorize an international investigation if the Yemeni authorities fail to meet that deadline.
The transitional government has begun to compensate victims of the March 18 attack as well as thousands of others who were wounded, and families of hundreds of people killed during the uprising. But many victims have alleged political discrimination in the disbursement of the funds through a private charity. The government should ensure swift and fair distribution of the compensation, Human Rights Watch said.
“National dialogue that fails to recognize and make amends for past violations against all sectors of Yemeni society will only serve as a further affront to the Friday of Dignity anniversary,” Stork said.
For more background and details, please see below.
Under the political transition deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Yemen’s transition government, composed of former ruling party and opposition party members, is to oversee national dialogue, security-sector restructuring, the drafting of a new constitution, transitional justice, and electoral reform leading to general elections in February 2014.
New Violations against Journalists, Protesters
Although Human Rights Watch documented fewer rights violations in 2012-13 than during the uprising, it has found new attacks on free speech and free association by all sides, as well as alleged excessive use of force by state security forces. Yemeni human rights defenders allege that several anti-government protesters remain arbitrarily detained by security forces and private militia – a violation Human Rights Watch documentedin May 2012.
On February 12, members of the Central Security Forces attacked protesters camped outside the cabinet building in Sanaa to demand medical aid the transition government promised to those injured during the uprising. The forces wounded at least five protesters, including a member of parliament, Ahmad Saif Hashid, who was hospitalized for two deep head wounds resulting from a severe beating.
In a meeting on February 10, Interior Minister Abd al-Qadir Qahtan told Human Rights Watch that the ministry had not carried out any investigations or disciplinary measures against members of the Central Security Force for alleged violations by its members during the 2011 uprising. He promised, however, that security forces would be investigated for any violations since the change in government. Human Rights Watch wroteto the minister on February 15 pressing him to follow through on this assurance and to investigate what appears to have been excessive use of force against Hashid and the other protesters.
Journalists told Human Rights Watch about continuing harassment, threats, and attacks on themselves or their property. For example, the Defense Ministry issued a statement attacking the character of Khaled al-Hammadi, a widely-respected journalist and free-speech defender, after he wrote an article in January criticizing President Hadi’s appointment of members of his own family to official posts. The Ministry of Defense responded with a statement attacking him, stating “Khaled al-Hammadi needs to view [the appointments] without incorporating his racist and regional leanings which are both diseased and destructive… Hammadi and his ilk are nothing but cheap tools of conspiratorial forces attempting to disable the transitional process.”
Several female journalists and activists have been the targets of a “takfir” campaign – in which they were denounced as apostates and infidels – in some cases anonymously and in other cases by former members of Islah, the influential Islamist party, or Islah-leaning media. The campaign has included death threats and calls to violence against them. The transition government should swiftly investigate these threats and bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said.
Incomplete Military Reform
Human Rights Watch is encouraged by President Hadi’s limited steps to bring Yemen’s military and paramilitary forces under civilian control, but said he should continue these efforts in the coming months.
Among other steps, President Hadi in December issued a decree to restructure Yemen’s military into five units – army, navy, air force, border force, and strategic reserve forces. Hadi also removed Saleh’s nephew, Yahya Saleh, as chief of the Central Security Forces, and ordered the dismantling of the Republican Guard, commanded by Saleh’s son, Gen. Ahmad Ali Saleh, and the rival First Armored Division, commanded by Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
Both Ahmad Ali Saleh and al-Ahmar told Human Rights Watch that they would abide by any orders to resign, but each general appeared for the moment to remain in command of his respective forces.
The Hadi government should also thoroughly vet the security forces as part of the restructuring process to ensure that all those responsible for serious human rights violations are removed from the ranks, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has documented past violations by units of the First Armored Division, the Republican Guard and the Central Security Forces.
Government officials should also transfer policing functions from military and private armed groups to the police. Military forces including the First Armored Division and the militia of the powerful al-Ahmar family – no relation to General al-Ahmar – retain control of key areas of Sanaa although their presence has decreased over the past year.