(New York) - Yemen's new emergency law does not override the government's obligation to respect fundamental human rights under international law, Human Rights Watch said today.
Yemen's parliament on March 23, 2011, approved sweeping emergency legislation authorizing 30 days of expanded powers of arrest, detention, and censorship. President Ali Abdullah Saleh had declared a state of emergency on March 18, hours after pro-government gunmen opened fire on anti-government protesters in Sanaa, the capital. The attack killed at least 52 people and wounded hundreds.
"Emergency laws are no excuse to use unlawful force to quash peaceful protests," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The world is watching to see whether President Saleh will respect the basic rights of his citizens."
The legislation, which effectively suspends the constitution, allows media censorship, bars street protests, and gives security forces sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects without judicial process.
Human Rights Watch also called for a full disclosure of the voting procedures used to pass the law. Article 71 of Yemen's Constitution states that at least half of the 301 National Assembly members must be present for its meetings to be valid. Some opposition legislators issued statements saying that fewer than half the assembly members were present for the vote and that it was taken by a show of hands.
The action on the emergency law follows more than five weeks of largely peaceful protests against Saleh. Human Rights Watch has documented the repeated use of unlawful and excessive force by security forces against protesters, including live ammunition. Security forces also have assisted or failed to stop pro-government gangs who have shot peaceful protesters or attacked them with knives, sticks, and rocks. The attacks have killed dozens of protesters and wounded several hundred others.
Yemeni authorities should also reverse their decision earlier on March 23 to close down Al Jazeera's television news channel operations in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities shut down the bureau and withdrew press accreditation from its Yemen-based staff four days after deporting two other correspondents from the Doha-based channel.
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." The Human Rights Committee, the international body of experts that monitors compliance with the treaty, has said that 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.
The Human Rights Committee has said that a state of emergency does not permit arbitrary detention. It has stated that "fundamental requirements of fair trial must be respected during a state of emergency. Only a court of law may try and convict a person for a criminal offence. The presumption of innocence must be respected. In order to protect non-derogable rights, the right to take proceedings before a court to enable the court to decide without delay on the lawfulness of detention, must not be diminished by a state party's decision to derogate from the Covenant."
Yemeni security forces also should also abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms when engaging with protesters. The Basic Principles allow law enforcement agents to use only the degree of force necessary and proportionate to protect people and property and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The Basic Principles call on governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force or firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.
"President Saleh needs to stop the bloodshed in Yemen by upholding international law," Stork said. "He should be directing authorities to step up the search for the gunmen who shot protesters, rather than finding new ways to stifle peaceful dissent."