(San'a) - Yemeni authorities should stop using unjustified lethal force against protesters and end attacks on the media in southern Yemen, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 73-page report, "In the Name of Unity: The Yemeni Government's Brutal Response to Southern Movement Protests," documents attacks by security forces on supporters of the so-called Southern Movement as well as on journalists, academics, and other opinion-makers. Based on over 80 interviews with victims in the southern Yemeni cities of Aden and Mukalla, the report finds that security forces used lethal force against unarmed demonstrators on at least six occasions. Over the past year the authorities arbitrarily arrested thousands of people for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, suspended independent media critical of government policies, and detained journalists and writers on spurious charges.
"Yemeni authorities are violating basic rights in the name of maintaining national unity," said Joe Stork, deputy director at Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. "Southern Yemenis should have the right to peacefully assemble and express their opinions, even on critical issues like secession."
North and South Yemen united as one country in May 1990, but fought a brief civil war in 1994 in which the north prevailed. Southern Yemenis contend that central authorities then dismissed many southerners from the army and government employment and denied southern Yemen its fair share of national resources. Protests in 2007, initially led by retired military officers calling for increased pensions or reinstatement, quickly grew to encompass demands for more jobs, less corruption, and a greater share of oil revenues.
Subsequently, the protests have been led by the Southern Movement, a loose gathering of protest leaders whose demands have escalated to include secession and formation of an independent state. On six occasions during 2008 and 2009, Human Rights Watch found in its investigation, security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, often without warning and aiming at them from short range. At least 11 people were killed and dozens were wounded.
These protests occurred on May 31, 2009, in al-Dhali'; May 30, 2009, in Shahr; May 21, 2009, in Hashimi Square, Aden; April 15, 2009, in Habilain; July 4, 2008, in Mafraq al-Shu'aib, al-Dhali'; and January 13, 2008, also in Aden's Hashimi Square.
The Southern Movement is avowedly peaceful, though many civilians in the south have weapons. Since July there have been more reports of protesters bringing weapons to demonstrations. Following a Southern Movement protest on July 23, in Zanjibar, Abyan province, armed guards of Shaikh Tariq al-Fadhli, a Southern Movement leader, fought a pitched gun battle with security forces some distance from the protest site in which at least 12 died and 18 were wounded.
The southern protests often are planned for days of historical significance, such as the anniversary of independence from Great Britain in 1967. In its report, Human Rights Watch documents arbitrary arrests of scores of people, including children, before or during these protests. Some of those arrested were peaceful participants, while others were simply passers-by. Although the authorities released most within a matter of days, suspected protest leaders have been held for longer periods, resulting in subsequent demonstrations demanding their release, which have led to fresh police violence.
In a campaign that appeared to escalate in May, Yemeni authorities have also suspended newspapers, attacked media offices, and arrested - and in some cases charged and tried -journalists, apparently for expressing their views peacefully.
The information minister, Hasan al-Luzi, suspended distribution of eight newspapers in May. By July, some, but not all, were allowed to resume publication. On May 12, security forces fought an hour-long gun battle with guards at the Aden compound of Al-Ayyam, Yemen's oldest and largest-circulation independent newspaper, killing one bystander and severely wounding another.
Gha'id Nasr Ali, the Radfan correspondent for Al-Shari' and Al-Thawri newspapers, was arrested in April 2008 and again in January 2009 over coverage of protests. In May, and again in July, security forces prevented Al Jazeera satellite television station correspondents in Aden from leaving their hotel rooms to cover protests. Authorities also arrested website editors and writers covering protests.
Trials have begun in 2009 against a few dissidents and opinion-makers based on charges that criminalize free expression. Qasim ‘Askar, a former ambassador of the South Yemeni state, is on trial for "threatening national unity," as is Husain ‘Aqil, an Aden university professor and Southern Movement spokesperson. Salah al-Saqladi, a website editor, went on trial in mid-November, on charges of "insulting the president," "stirring up strife and inciting against unity," "being in contact with secessionists abroad," and "incitement of violence." In July, a court of first instance in Qubaita, Lahj province sentenced the local Al-Ayyam correspondent, Anis Mansur, to 14 months in prison for his coverage of southern protests.
"Yemen's reputation as a country where one can freely speak one's mind is being badly damaged," said Stork. "The government's recent attacks on the media and journalists are unprecedented and herald a dark chapter of state repression if they continue."