(New York) - The United States should immediately suspend military assistance to Yemen until President Ali Abdullah Saleh ends attacks on largely peaceful anti-government protesters and prosecutes those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today.
In the deadliest attack since daily anti-government protests began in mid-February, unidentified gunmen on March 18, 2011, opened fire from nearby buildings and the ground on largely peaceful demonstrators in Sanaa, the capital, while security forces stood by without intervening, local human rights activists told Human Rights Watch. Doctors said 45 protesters, including one young boy, were shot dead, and more than 350 others were wounded, most from gunshots.
Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm media reports that members of the security forces also fired on protesters. However, gunmen seen firing from buildings, including the al-Mahweet governor's house and a bank, had shooting skills that suggested that they were professional marksmen, the local activists said.
"Time and again, President Saleh promises he will stop attacks on peaceful protesters and yet the number of dead keeps rising," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The United States should back up its words condemning the carnage with action, and halt military aid to Yemen."
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous attacks on largely peaceful anti-government protesters by the security forces and by armed assailants who have shot, stabbed, or hit protesters with stones and sticks, while security forces stood by.
The United States has provided more than $300 million in military and security aid to Yemen in the past five years. The US should make further military aid contingent on the government ending attacks on protesters and holding accountable officials and others, regardless of position, who are responsible for the unlawful use of force, Human Rights Watch said.
Saleh declared a state of emergency in Yemen a few hours after the shootings, which began around 1:20 p.m., and said a "neutral committee" would investigate deaths during recent protests in Sanaa and elsewhere. He described the March 18 shootings as a clash between citizens and "armed elements" among the anti-government protesters.
However, witnesses and media reports said the protesters were finishing their mid-day prayer when the gunmen in civilian clothing fired at them with assault rifles, including AK-47s, from buildings at the Iranian Hospital Square. The square is a five-minute walk from the gates of Sanaa University, the main protest area. The protest has spread to surrounding streets as the number of demonstrators has grown to tens of thousands on recent Fridays, including on March 18.
About 60 uniformed members of the Central Security specialized police forces "were watching without any reaction," a human rights activist who saw the attack told Human Rights Watch. Gunfire continued for up to an hour, at which point security forces sprayed water cannons both at the buildings from which the gunmen had fired and at the protesters, he said. The witness said he saw about 30 gunmen firing from windows or roofs of buildings and another 5 gunmen on the ground. Other witnesses said they saw gunmen standing among the security forces as they fired at the crowd.
After the gunmen started firing, some protesters threw stones and stormed the buildings from which the gunmen had fired, the human rights activist said.
Doctors at the scene said at least 45 people had been killed and 350 injured. The human rights activist told Human Rights Watch that he counted 30 bodies at a field hospital run by protesters and at another nearby hospital immediately after the shootings. He said one of the dead was a boy who had been shot in the face. Doctors said most of the dead had been shot in the head or chest and that most of the injuries were from bullet wounds. Others were injured by stones, or by teargas fired by security forces, the doctors said.
Saleh should ensure that the state of emergency he declared March 18 is justified and temporary and that any suspensions of civil liberties are strictly limited to the minimum necessary to ensure public order, Human Rights Watch said.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Yemen ratified in 1987, permits some restrictions on certain rights during an officially proclaimed public emergency that "threatens the life of the nation." According to the Human Rights Committee, the international body of experts that monitors compliance with the treaty, any derogation of rights during a public emergency must be of an exceptional and temporary nature, and must be "limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation."
Certain fundamental rights - such as the right to life, and the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment - must always be respected, even during a public emergency.
"President Saleh should not use a state of emergency as an excuse to stop peaceful assembly," Whitson said. "He should be directing the authorities to look for gunmen to prosecute, not for more protesters to shoot."