(Sanaa) -Yemeni authorities should take immediate steps to ensure that security forces prevent assaults against anti-government protesters and arrest those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. In city after city in Yemen, security forces have stood by or fled, and failed to protect people exercising their right to peaceful assembly. In some cases it appeared that too few police were deployed to halt the attacks.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on March 6, 2011, in the south-central city of Ibb, about100 men armed mostly with rocks, sticks, and glass bottles attacked hundreds of demonstrators calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounding dozens. Some security staff abandoned their posts. Others who struggled to stop the violence were overrun by the assailants and allowed the attackers to leave the scene after the two-hour rampage without apprehending them. President Saleh said on February 23 that security forces would protect demonstrators from such attacks.
"Three weeks after President Saleh promised to protect demonstrators, pro-government gangs are still viciously assaulting protesters while the security forces largely stand by and watch," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Saleh should forcefully condemn these attacks and take meaningful action to stop them."
Human Rights Watch previously documented attacks against anti-government demonstrators in the central town of al-Baida on March 3, the western port of al-Hudaida on March 2, and the capital, Sanaa, on February 18 and 22, in which security forces also abandoned their posts or simply watched the violence unfold.
Five witnesses in Ibb told Human Rights Watch that shortly before midday on March 6, the assailants attacked anti-government protesters at the city's main bus station, renamed "Freedom Square," which had been peacefully occupied by thousands of people since mid-February. An hour earlier, government supporters held a rally in the municipal stadium on the other side of the city, the second since the sit-in at the bus station began, several sources told Human Rights Watch.
The authorities closed schools and government offices in Ibb that day, the sources said, apparently to ensure that officials and students could attend the rally. Two local journalists, Mohamed Al-Khairi and Ibrahim al-Baidani, told Human Rights Watch that they saw numerous military and police pickup trucks and 4x4s transport hundreds of pro-government demonstrators through town to the stadium.
Al-Baidani said that some days earlier a contact in General Security, Yemen's police force, had told him that the local branch of the General People's Congress, the president's ruling party, was planning to bring in hundreds - and perhaps thousands - of people from outside the city to attend the rally.
Both journalists said that at 11:45 a.m. on March 6, shortly after the pro-government rally ended, dozens of men approached the eastern side of the bus station. Carrying sticks, rocks, and glass bottles, they chanted pro-government slogans and shouted insults at the protesters, some of whom formed a chain across the bus station entrance.
Al-Baidani said he saw and heard a senior military police officer approach the demonstrators and tell them not to worry or fight the approaching crowd. The assailants tried to get past about 10 military police who were standing in front of the anti-government protesters, but the military police held the assailants back and fired warning shots in the air when they faced resistance.
Al-Baidani also said that 11 General Security officers as well as the deputy director of the city's Criminal Investigation Department, along with about 15 men in military uniform, were standing near the pro-government crowd, watching them closely. Al-Khairi said a number of officers had left the scene in a Central Security vehicle.
Al-Khairi, who watched the start of the clash from the roof of the nearby al-Ghufran mosque, said that about 50 assailants appeared on the eastern side of the bus station and threw stones at the protesters. About 10 military police and 20 armed General Security officers tried to stop the assailants from advancing by hitting them on the legs with sticks and firing guns in the air. Al-Khairi said the protesters were shouting, "Our revolution is peaceful," "Police and military, you are one of us," and "Shame on you, President Saleh. Why are you attacking us?"
One protester, Yahya Ali Mohammed Sharif, told Human Rights Watch he was one of the first to be injured when a stone struck his forehead: "They were throwing glass bottles so at first I thought it was a water bottle. Then I realized it was blood running down my face, so I stumbled to our medical tent."
Al-Khairi, the journalist, moved to the eastern side of the square. He said he could then see the pro-government gang throwing stones at the protesters, injuring several dozen. Some anti-government protesters responded by throwing stones back, he said, while other protesters restrained them. Al-Khairi said General Security officers told him after the attack that none of the pro-government assailants were injured.
Al-Khairi said that at around 2:15 p.m., shots were fired and he heard some of the protesters shout, "They are dead! They are dead!" at which point the assailants stopped throwing stones. Both journalists said the assailants then left, while the military police and dozens of General Security officers stood next to five General Security vehicles and watched, without trying to arrest any of them. At 3 p.m., al-Khairi said, after all the assailants had left, anti-riot police arrived and formed a cordon around the anti-government protesters for about 20 minutes.
"Despite initial attempts to prevent the assailants from reaching the protesters, the security forces simply let them go," Stork said. "Yemeni authorities should arrest and prosecute those responsible for these criminal attacks."
Yemeni authorities should deploy sufficient security personnel to protect anti-government protesters from violent attacks, Human Rights Watch said. All too often, Yemeni security forces have been used to attack peaceful protesters rather than to ensure their security, Human Rights Watch said. The security forces have shot and killed at least 10 anti-government protesters at largely peaceful rallies - nine in February in the southern port city of Aden and one on March 8 in Sanaa - and injured more than 200 others.
A doctor at Ibb's Dar al-Shifa hospital told Human Rights Watch that he interviewed 11 injured protesters admitted to the hospital between 12:30 and 4 p.m. on March 6. He said all 11 told him they had been attacked by assailants in "Freedom Square" with sticks, stones, and daggers.
The doctor said that three of the patients were seriously injured, two from dagger wounds and a third who had been struck in the back with a heavy rock and then stomped on. Others had broken noses and minor head injuries. The doctor said he knew of 11 other patients who had been admitted to al-Shifa hospital on March 6 in the aftermath of the attack on the protesters.
On March 7, the doctor said, several men in military uniform came to the hospital to get a list of the injured protesters and asked whether they had left the hospital.
A protester who assisted the demonstrators' medical committee during the attack told Human Rights Watch that as of March 8, the committee had registered 67 injured protesters, some of whom had only come forward the day after the attack. He said most injuries were to the head and chest and caused by rocks.
Al-Baidani, the journalist, told Human Rights Watch he had spent some of the time during the attack in the protesters' medical tent, where he said he interviewed and photographed 34 of the injured, most of whom had head and limb injuries caused by stones and sticks.
The doctor said that five of the injured told him that unknown persons had shot at the protesters from a white building overlooking the square. The second journalist, al-Khairi, said the protesters' medical committee had recorded two gunshot wounds. One man was hit in the chest, and a second man's head was grazed by a bullet. Sharif, the protester who was one of the first to be injured, also said that he had seen one person whose head had been grazed by a bullet, whom he had taken to the Nasr government hospital.
Sharif said that late on March 6 some assailants returned to "Freedom Square" and shouted at protesters that if they did not leave, the assailants would throw grenades into the protest site.
"The pattern of violence in Ibb and other Yemeni cities suggests that pro-government assailants are confident they will not be stopped or held to account," Stork said. "If President Saleh fails to fulfil his promise of protection, peaceful protesters will continue to end up in hospitals and graves."