Anti-government protesters sdemonstrate outside Sanaa University on February 23, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(New York) - Police allowed pro-government armed groups to attack peaceful protesters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on the night of February 22, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The armed groups killed at least one anti-government protester and injured 38 others, according to witnesses.

Police ostensibly deployed to protect anti-government protesters at the gates of Sanaa University, stood aside to allow an attack by a large group of government supporters armed with AK-47 assault rifles, pistols, sticks and daggers, eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch. The armed group had arrived in trucks, one of which displayed a large portrait of the president. On 20 February police had promised to protect the demonstrators. Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh has pledged his forces would only fire in self-defense.

"Police who stand by and let others do their dirty work should be held to account," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.  "President Saleh's promises to stop the violence mean little so long as peaceful protesters still get attacked."

A doctor present during the attack told Human Rights Watch that police initially formed a line separating protesters from armed government supporters on both sides of the square. "Suddenly, police allowed them to come through, and they started throwing stones at us," the doctor said. "Then police just left and the thugs, who were some 100 meters away, opened fire."

Another witness said he saw a car drive into the square and two people get out and start shooting directly at the protesters with AK-47s.  He said he also saw other government supporters carrying pistols. Protesters showed Human Rights Watch about 20 AK-47 and pistol bullet casings they said they found on the square immediately after the attack. Human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that gunmen were seen firing from an adjacent building.

The police were nowhere to be seen during at least five minutes of continuous gunfire from the pro-government group, eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch. After police reinforcements arrived, the police began shooting in the air, but failed to stop the government supporters for another 20 minutes while sporadic shooting continued, the witnesses said.

The doctor said that soon after the shooting started, four wounded protesters were brought into a medical tent. "All four had bullet wounds in various parts of the body," he said. "One man was shot in the head."  He said that one died immediately and another was in critical condition. Media reports and Yemeni human rights activists said the second person also died from his injuries, but Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm this.

About 10 of the 38 injured were in serious condition and were taken to hospital. According to the doctor, Kuwait hospital, a government institution, refused to take four of the injured. They had to be driven to another medical facility, the doctor said.

As of 1:30 a.m. local time on February 23, many anti-government protesters remained in the square. Government supporters still occupied a large part of it, dancing and singing pro-government songs.


Protesters demanding Saleh's resignation have staged daily rallies at the site since February 11 and began sit-ins there over the weekend. After several attacks by pro-Saleh provocateurs, municipal police on February 20 promised the protesters that they would ensure their protection.

The Yemeni government has confirmed one dead in the attack on February 22 and four dead in previous incidents but have not released the names.

At least 12 protesters have been killed in rallies seeking Saleh's resignation since February 16, according to information that Human Rights Watch obtained from Yemeni human rights groups. 

One human rights group said the number was higher, supplying the names of 16 people it said were killed in the southern port city of Aden alone, one a 14-year-old boy. The local groups said that the protesters in Aden were killed by military or other government security forces during largely peaceful protests. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the circumstances surrounding the deaths.

Another victim died on February 20 of injuries from a grenade attack by an unknown assailant three days earlier in the city of Taizz. Yemeni human rights groups obtained the names of those killed from hospitals and relatives.

Protests throughout the country that began on February 3 have left at least 200 people injured, local groups told Human Rights Watch. They reported that 76 of those people were injured during protests in Aden on February 16-18. In Taizz, another 87 people were wounded on February 18 in the grenade attack.

The government should immediately investigate the role of police, military and other security forces in the attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

"At least 18 Yemeni youth have paid with their lives for simply demanding that their government respect their basic rights," said Whitson. "The Yemeni authorities should allow peaceful protesters to express their grievances without risk of death and injury at the hands of the security forces or pro-government armed groups."

Human Rights Watch has previously documented the apparent role of the government in coordinating the presence of armed provocateurs and pro-Saleh demonstrators since the protests became daily events starting February 11.

Yemeni government officials said they are holding nine people in connection with the grenade attack in Taizz. On February 21, President Saleh, who described the anti-government protests sweeping from Tunisia and Egypt as a "virus", said he ordered Yemeni security forces to fire only in self-defense.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Yemen is obligated to protect the rights to life and security of the person, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Yemen should also abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which provide that lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, and must be exercised with restraint and proportionality.