(New York) - Continued assaults, intimidation, and beatings targeting protesters in Yemen raise concerns about the Yemeni government's respect for the right to free assembly, Human Rights Watch said today.
"The Yemeni authorities have a duty to permit and protect peaceful demonstrations," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead, the security forces and armed thugs appear to be working together."
On the morning of February 11, 2011, students and activists staged an anti-government demonstration in front of the new university in Sanaa, the capital. It grew to the hundreds as onlookers and passersby joined the protesters, who called for Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to resign.
Yemeni security forces arrested one youth who was writing slogans for the protesters. Pro-government thugs carrying sticks then arrived. Known locally as "balataga," they clashed with the demonstrators. The anti-government protesters headed towards the old university, where they were met by additional security forces.
On Qasr Street, demonstrators were confronted by dozens more balataga who carried clubs, axes, the traditional Yemeni daggers called jambia, and electroshock tasers. According to eyewitnesses, the balataga assaulted the demonstrators. One demonstrator, a middle-aged mechanic named Muhamad who joined the demonstrators while on his way to work, said that he was shocked by a taser, stabbed in his hand, and beaten on his leg, face, and back of the head.
"I encourage any persecuted person to demand their rights democratically, because a human is born free," Muhamad told Human Rights Watch. "A human is human, not an animal. He can't be guided by a stick. And I want the regime to treat us like humans. I met people in the demonstration. I found them suffering from the same thing I suffer. So it's my right to express my opinion and express what I suffer from this current regime."