(Sanaa) - Yemen's security forces attacked demonstrators, activists, lawyers, and journalists in Sanaa, the capital, on February 14, 2011, apparently without justification, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch and other witnesses observed the attacks, most of them during a protest that began at Sanaa University. A number of local journalists were beaten by the security forces and groups of government supporters and plainclothes security men arrested, assaulted, and confiscated the materials of international journalists, including a BBC Arabic correspondent.
"President Saleh seems to be borrowing from former President Mubarak's expired playbook on how to deal with demonstrations," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "If there's a lesson President Saleh should have learned by now, it's that violent attacks on demonstrators will not quell dissent."
Government security forces also appeared to be organizing groups of armed pro-government supporters to assault the anti-government protesters, although in some cases the police on the spot prevented clashes. In one case the organized government supporters appeared to include children.
Students and youth activists began demonstrating against the government at 10 a.m. in front of Sanaa University's new campus. Ahmed Seif Hashid, a member of parliament, joined the demonstrators.
Faez Noman, a youth activist beaten by police during demonstrations on February 13, called a Human Rights Watch source to say he had been arrested shortly before the demonstration began. Noman's colleagues say he is being held at the May 22 Police Station.
As about 100 demonstrators assembled at the Sanaa campus, chanting slogans, they were joined by hundreds more. The initial security presence of about 30 men grew to about 50, including police and army - one Special Forces officer, central security, emergency response police, and civilian security men, all identifiable by their uniforms.
Pro-government demonstrators began to organize a half-hour later. Local journalists and activists told Human Rights Watch they saw security forces transporting the government demonstrators to the campus Sanaa's Tahrir Square, where a permanent camp of government supporters is located. They appeared to be young, some as young as high school age, but there were no clashes because police physically separated the two sides.
At approximately 11 a.m., about 500 members of the lawyers' syndicate marched toward the new campus from their headquarters and soon joined the student demonstration. They told Human Rights Watch that their main impetus was an earlier attack on the syndicate's president, Abdallah Rajih. Among the leaders of the lawyer's protest was Khalid al-Anisi, whom security forces arrested during the February 13 demonstration but subsequently released. The lawyers shouted criticisms of government corruption and the government's prosecutor.
The expanded group of anti-government demonstrators then headed for the Justice Ministry. Security forces tried to stop them, and the lawyers pushed through after a few security men swung clubs at them. But further along, a new group of government supporters appeared.
The group included boys who appeared to be of middle school and high school age, holding sticks and clubs and raising pictures of the president. The boys tried to attack the lawyers, but police prevented them. However, Human Rights Watch observed civilian and uniformed members of the Yemeni security forces organizing and directing the government supporters. Eventually, the anti-government demonstrators turned back and walked to the university.
"Deploying children with weapons, and putting them in the midst of what might easily become violent confrontation, is a particularly abject tactic to staunch public protests," Whitson said. "The Yemeni government is really scraping the bottom of the barrel here."
Security forces and the armed government supporters also attacked foreign and domestic journalists. Near the university roundabout, government marchers armed with sticks attacked Abdallah Ghorab, a BBC Arabic correspondent, beating him in the head, face, and body. Ghorab was forced to cut short his transmission.
Security officers observed the beating and did nothing to stop it, instead encouraging the attackers, shouting that Ghorab was a spy and that they should attack him, Ghorab and his crew said. The attackers called Ghorab a mason, a spy, and a dog, and accused him of "selling the country for dollars." Human Rights Watch saw Ghorab afterward. His nose was swollen, and he had a large bloody cut on his face, from top to bottom.
Ghorab said the attackers took him to a white Land Rover, where he saw Hafidh Ma'ayad, president of the Yemeni Economic Association, one of the biggest government-sponsored associations and a senior ruling party official, sitting in the front seat.
Ghorab said that Ma'ayad called him a spy. Central Security officers outside the car advised Ma'yad to let Ghorab go. Ghorab and other witnesses said they saw some of the attackers leave in Ma'yad's car.
"I am not ok, and the country is not ok," Ghorab angrily told Human Rights Watch. "This is the result of speaking the truth."
CNN reported that Yemeni security authorities confiscated their video footage on Sunday, but subsequently returned it.
"Try as the Yemeni government may to close the world's eyes and ears to the violence of their security forces against peaceful protesters, it will fail," Whitson said. "In this day and age, the truth will come out."
Abdelrahman Barman, a lawyer and official in the leading Yemeni human rights organization HOOD, also reported to Human Rights Watch that he witnessed separate arrests and violence on February 14. About 100 day laborers gathered in the morning near the Beit Bus roundabout, where they usually wait for work, and began to demonstrate and call for the president to resign because they could not find jobs. Barman saw policemen and general security officers arrest the man who was organizing the protesters, along with others. He said he saw at least 15 riot police attacking the protesters, forcibly dispersing them, and arresting six or seven. They included Yusuf Abdallah al-Jail, Mazin Ahmad, Saddam al-Aliyi, Abdelrahim Hassan, and Qais Sadiq. It is unclear whether the police have filed charges against them or where the men are being detained.
At approximately 1:30 p.m., Barman observed pro-government marchers attacking the student demonstrators with bottles and stones near the new campus. The students retreated to the university, as campus police officers opened the gates for them. Inside, Barman saw six or seven university police beat seven demonstrators.