(Tunis) - The Yemeni government's escalating violence against largely peaceful protesters and medical workers should prompt countries around the world to freeze foreign assets of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his top security officials, Human Rights Watch said today. Other countries should also ban all exports of arms and security equipment to Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.
During the three-day rampage in Taizz, beginning May 29, 2011, and followed by an additional attack on June 3, state security forces, in concert with pro-government assailants, shot dead at least 19 people, including a young boy and a man who bled to death after troops forced a doctor to stop tending him, witnesses and doctors told Human Rights Watch. Doctors pronounced at least eight other protesters clinically dead. They said the clashes left at least 262 people wounded. Security forces and armed gangs also burned and razed protesters' tents to force them from their sit-in site, fired on medical facilities using live ammunition, prevented medical workers from treating wounded protesters, and detained a doctor and four nurses along with two dozen protesters, the doctors and witnesses said.
"First the security forces kill and wound protesters, then they keep medical workers from treating the wounded and raze the protesters' camps to wipe out all traces of them," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Foreign countries need to respond. They should freeze the assets of the president and other top officials until these horrendous abuses stop and those responsible are brought to account."
The fatal shootings of anti-government protesters and assaults on medical workers in Taizz coincides with sharply escalating clashes in Sanaa, the capital, and elsewhere between Saleh's forces and opposition tribal fighters and a shelling of the presidential palace on June 2 that injured Saleh.
States should freeze Saleh's assets and those of top security officials, including the president's nephew Yahya Muhammad Saleh, who commands the Central Security paramilitary forces, and the president's son Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh, who heads the elite Republican Guards, Human Rights Watch said. The US, the EU, and Gulf states have condemned serious human rights violations and stepped up calls for the president to relinquish power, but have stopped short of imposing arms embargoes and individual sanctions similar to those in place against officials in Syria and Libya.
"We did nothing; we are peaceful protesters," one protester told Human Rights Watch after the first round attacks in Taizz on May 29 and 30. "So why is the president doing this to us?"
Human Rights Watch has confirmed the deaths of 166 people in attacks by security forces and pro-government assailants on largely peaceful protesters since February, when demonstrators took to the streets to call for an end to Saleh's 33-year rule. At least 130 people have died in heavy fighting since May 23 between government and opposition tribal forces in and around Sanaa but because of precarious security conditions Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm how many were civilians. Government forces in recent days also reportedly conducted airstrikes against alleged Islamist militant targets in the southern coastal town of Zanjibar.
Human Rights Watch also urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution condemning the serious human rights violations against protesters in Yemen and to establish monitoring and reporting mechanisms to address the abuses. Human Rights Watch criticized the UN Security Council for stalling on addressing the Yemen crisis.
"After months of coordinated attacks by government forces and armed gangs on largely peaceful protesters in Yemen, the silence of the Security Council is deafening," Stork said. "It's past time for the Security Council to take steps to help protect the Yemeni people from unlawful attacks."
The Attacks on Taizz
Human Rights Watch's account of the attacks on Taizz is based on more than two dozen telephone interviews with protesters, doctors and other witnesses.
Killings at General Security Building
The incidents in Taizz, a city south of the capital that has been a focal point of anti-Saleh protests, began around 3 p.m. on May 29 when thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the General Security office in the al-Qahira district to demand the release of a protester arrested earlier that day, several witnesses told Human Rights Watch. At the request of an officer at the building, the demonstrators left and returned at 5 p.m. with the promise that they could collect the detained protester.
At around 5:30 p.m., a man in civilian clothes armed with a Kalashnikov shot at the protesters from a distance of about 15 meters, then ran into the General Security building, a protester who was shot in one leg told Human Rights Watch. This wounded protester and another protester said that large numbers of armed civilians and General Security forces then shot at the demonstrators from the building's roof, balcony, and main entrance for about one hour.
The two witnesses said some protesters then threw stones at the building and captured one security officer who had been shooting at protesters. Human Rights Watch was not able to learn what happened to the security officer. One of the witnesses said the protesters then retreated about 100 meters to a site they call "Freedom Square," where they had been staging sit-ins against Saleh since February.
Between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., doctors at Taizz's al-Safwa hospital received the bodies of four protesters killed outside the General Security office, a doctor at al-Safwa told Human Rights Watch. About 60 demonstrators wounded during the attack were admitted to a field hospital for protesters in a nearby mosque, the field hospital's chief doctor said. The wounded were then transferred to other medical facilities, including al-Safwa hospital and a makeshift clinic in a tent at Freedom Square, doctors at those facilities said.
"We have credible reports that the security forces opened fire at protesters at almost point-blank range, and for no apparent reason," Stork said. "Security forces including the officials in charge of the al-Qahira General Security office should be immediately investigated in connection with these killings."
Attacks and Killings At Freedom Square
Thousands of protesters then retreated to Freedom Square. There, five protesters separately told Human Rights Watch, uniformed members of the Republican Guards, Central Security, Military Police, and Public Security, in addition to armed civilians, again began firing on the protesters. One protester said that between about 6:30 p.m. on May 29 and 1 a.m. on May 30, increasing numbers of security forces approached the protest area from different sides, shot at the protesters, retreated, and then sporadically returned and re-opened fire. Around 1 a.m., the witnesses said, the security forces moved into the heart of the protest area, shooting as they went.
One protester told Human Rights Watch that as the various security forces advanced, she saw three protesters die in front of her, shot in the chest and the head. She said she also saw Republican Guards and Central Security forces drag two apparently dead protesters from the scene.
In addition to live ammunition, the security forces then used teargas and a water cannon against them, protesters said. Security forces threw bottles filled with liquid at some of the protesters' tents, causing them to burst into flames. The protesters scattered as some threw stones at the security forces. Soon after, four protesters told Human Rights Watch, they saw bulldozers roll up and flatten the sit-in tents.
By then Freedom Square was empty, but around 3:30 a.m. or 4, security forces seized about 24 more protesters who had been hiding in buildings on the square and detained them at al-Jamalia police station in Taizz, said a protester who was released June 2. The protester said that he was among 20 detained protesters released without charge on June 2 and that authorities were holding the other four for prosecution.
Human Rights Watch was not able to learn whether the protester who was detained on May 29 was released.
At least 8 people were killed and about 120 were wounded in the attack on Freedom Square on May 29-30, several doctors said.
Attack on Medical Personnel and Denial of Medical Care
Human Rights Watch spoke with several doctors working in three medical facilities at and around Freedom Square who described simultaneous attacks by security forces or armed civilians on the three facilities, and the arrest of a doctor at a fourth medical facility, after the assaults on Freedom Square. The first three attacks began about 2 a.m. on May 30.
Scores of Republican Guards and Central Security forces shot live ammunition as they approached al-Safwa hospital, then fired teargas into the facility, said one doctor and three wounded protesters who were inside. The doctor said the forces then entered the building, shot into the air, and ordered him to stop treating wounded protesters, including those in need of emergency care.
The doctor said one patient who had been hit in an artery in the leg was bleeding heavily and died in the hospital after security forces ordered medical staff to stop treating patients. The same doctor said that the security forces pointed their guns at the heads of the wounded and hospital staff, and forced everyone inside the hospital to leave.
"Even monsters would not treat people like this," the doctor said.
A second doctor at al-Safwa hospital said the security forces took four nurses from the hospital and detained them at al-Jamalia police station.
At around 9 a.m. on May 30, General Security forces also seized Sadiq al-Ebil, a surgeon, from the May 22nd Hospital, where he was treating wounded protesters, two other doctors from that hospital told Human Rights Watch. They said the surgeon was held in a jail inside the administrative offices of the Taizz security forces.
Doctors from al-Safwa hospital and the field hospital at the mosque told Human Rights Watch on June 2 that the four nurses and the surgeon had been released but they did not know when.
Also abound 2 a.m. on May 30, a large number of Republican Guards surrounded the field hospital inside the mosque at Freedom Square for six hours while doctors refused to let them enter, three doctors including the deputy director told Human Rights Watch. The security forces fired into the air until the doctors let them enter at around 8 a.m., two doctors who were inside at the time said. Once inside, one doctor said, security forces terrorized the wounded and the medical staff, even thrusting the butts of their guns onto patients' wounds. One wounded protester fell to the ground unconscious after a security officer smashed the butt of his gun into his face, the doctor said.
Around the same time that security forces surrounded the field hospital, Republican Guards, Central Security officers, and armed civilians attacked the field clinic tent at Freedom Square, a doctor managing the tent said. The gunmen fired shots in the air and then dozens of security forces and civilian gunmen entered the tent, fired more shots into the air, ordered the doctor to stop treating the wounded, and forced everyone from the tent, he said. The doctor said security forces ordered him to leave the area, forcing him to leave behind some of the wounded protesters he had been treating.
Third Day of Attacks on Protesters and Medical Facilities
The attacks on protesters and medical facilities resumed on the afternoon of May 31, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Central Security and General Security forces shot dead 4 more people - 3 died immediately and one died June 3 - and wounded 40 others during attacks along Wadi al-Qadhi, a street in Taizz where demonstrations gathered throughout the day, according to three protesters who said they witnessed the shootings. In all three deadly shootings, the security forces opened fire as the protesters tried to flee, they said. One witness said one of the dead was a boy about 6 years old who was hit in the stomach by a stray bullet as he stood in front of his house. Three doctors at al-Rawdha Hospital, which received the bodies before they were transferred to a different hospital, confirmed those deaths.
Security forces dispersed most of the protesters that afternoon, but about 80 women remained and blocked a roundabout near Wadi al-Qadhi as they chanted slogans demanding that Saleh resign, a female activist said. Security forces told he female protesters, "We hope you leave, we don't want to attack you because you are women," said one participant, a local human rights activist. The security forces then fired shots in the air, prompting the women to move into Wadi al-Qadhi street, the activist said. There, about 40 people dressed in abayas - head-to-toe gowns that most women wear in public places in Yemen - hit the female protesters with batons and stones and tore off one protester's veil as they chased the women down the street, she said. The activist said she and other protesters suspected the attackers in abayas were men because they were large and muscular and wore military boots.
After wounded protesters began to arrive at al-Rawdha Hospital, armed gangs gathered outside the medical facility and were joined by Central Security forces, who drove up in government vehicles, a medical worker and a doctor at the hospital said. The security forces and armed civilians threatened the injured and medical staff, saying, "We will take you and we will drag you away," they said.
The armed gangs and security forces outside the hospital fled around 8 p.m., after a local sheikh sympathetic to the opposition dispatched armed tribesman, who fired shots into the air to disperse them, the medical workers said.
Officials at another medical facility in Taizz received threatening phone calls from two men identifying themselves as security officials the night of May 31 and again on June 1, warning them against treating wounded protesters, according to a doctor there. He did not want to name the medical facility for fear of retaliation.
Further Attack June 3, 2011
June 2 was marked by scattered clashes between security forces and armed opposition tribesmen who began fanning out in Taizz. On June 3, security forces firing from Central Security vehicles shot at protesters again as they left afternoon prayers at Al-Saeed mosque near Freedom Square, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Three protesters died, including one who was shot in the face, and at least 53 others were wounded, a medical worker at al-Rawdha hospital said.
Calls for International Action
Human Rights Watch called on foreign governments to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Saleh and his security officials until Yemeni authorities stop the violent crackdowns, conduct independent investigations into the attacks, prosecute suspected perpetrators, and compensate victims. It reiterated its call for the US, European Union and Gulf States, and other foreign donors to freeze all security-related assistance and weapons sales to Yemen.
Should Saleh agree to step down, the US, the European Union and Gulf states should revoke a promise of blanket immunity for the president and his family, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch also urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution condemning the serious human rights violations against protesters in Yemen and to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanisms to address the abuses. Human Rights Watch criticized the UN Security Council for stalling on addressing the Yemen crisis.