(New York) – Yemeni security forces used excessive force when they opened fire on anti-government protesters in Sanaa on September 18, 2011, and in Taizz on September 19, killing at least 27 and wounding hundreds, Human Rights Watch said today. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces in Sanaa first sprayed demonstrators with sewage, and then, after protesters responded by throwing rocks, fired directly on them without warning, using rocket-propelled grenades as well as assault rifles and heavy machine guns.
The attacks began six days after President Ali Abdullah Saleh authorized his vice president to resume negotiations on a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered accord, backed by the United States and the European Union, under which the president would resign in exchange for immunity from prosecution for any crime. The immunity deal would extend to Saleh’s relatives, who control key security forces, including Central Security. Negotiators should ensure that a resignation deal does not include immunity from international crimes, including crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said, especially in light of the continuing, unjustified lethal attacks by security forces on largely peaceful anti-government protesters.
“These latest killings by Yemeni security forces show exactly why there should be no get-out-of-jail-free card for those responsible,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Gulf Cooperation Council and other governments involved in negotiating President Saleh’s exit cannot grant immunity for international crimes.”
Human Rights Watch said the attacks were clearly disproportionate to any threat to the lives of security personnel or others from protesters throwing rocks. Witnesses said the security forces carried shields and wore protective gear including helmets, and that protesters were not carrying, let alone using, firearms.
The killings came as the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva considereda report on this year's unrest in Yemen that found security forces had responded with excessive and lethal force against peaceful demonstrations, resulting in hundreds of deaths.The UN report, discussed in Geneva on September 19, called for independent international investigations into human rights violations and asked Yemen to cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Yemen has objected to proposals that the High Commissioner establish an office in Sanaa. The recent attacks again demonstrated the urgency of the human rights situation in Yemen and the need for such a presence, Human Rights Watch said. The Netherlands is expected to put forward a resolution on Yemen at the Council at the end of this week.
“The UN Human Rights Council shouldn’t be fiddling while Sanaa burns,” Stork said. “A human rights office in Yemen won’t end the violence, but it can make an important difference.”
Street clashes between military forces loyal to the opposition and government forces broke out in Sanaa after the first attacks on protesters and continued for a third day on September 20, killing dozens more protesters and other civilians.
The September 18 attacks began around 5 p.m. as tens of thousands of protesters, claiming that the president was only stalling for time, began marching along streets outside Change Square, their encampment near Sanaa University. Human Rights Watch spoke with 18 witnesses to the events, who said that protesters were chanting anti-Saleh slogans and the phrase, “This is a peaceful march.”
At the end of al-Zeraa Street, several witnesses said, a line of security forces, most of them from Central Security but also some from National Security, blocked the march and sprayed protesters with a mixture containing sewage. Security forces also fired teargas and tried to push the protesters back by advancing with guns pointed at them. The protesters responded by throwing rocks, at which point the security forces fired directly at them without warning, using assault rifles and high-caliber machine guns, according to five protesters who were on the front line.
Protester Mabkhut al-Mahdi, 25, told Human Rights Watch that security forces fired their weapons at head and chest level and that he saw several protesters fall to the ground.
“I saw a person’s brain come out,” he said.
Some marchers moved from al-Zeraa Street to a crossroads known as Kentucky Intersection, about 250 meters away. There, five witnesses said, they met another line of Central Security forces that fired teargas and live ammunition at them when they refused to retreat. Some of the gunfire came from a public works building and from a nearby bridge, the witnesses said. Three witnesses said the Central Security forces at Kentucky Intersection also fired rocket-propelled grenades.
The deputy director of the protesters’ field clinic told Human Rights Watch the facility received 24 dead. Another doctor said the heads of two of the victims were almost entirely blown off, apparently after being hit with rocket-propelled grenades. Human Rights Watch observed 16 corpses in the clinic immediately after the attack, most with fresh bullet wounds to the head and chest. The deputy director said that that more than 400 others were wounded, 324 of them from live ammunition, and that more than 200 others suffered reactions to teargas.
After the shootings, sporadic street clashes broke out in various parts of the city between government security forces and pro-government assailants in civilian clothes on the one side and anti-Saleh protesters on the other, according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Yemeni and international media reports gave similar accounts of the violence.
On September 18 clashes also erupted between Central Security forces and the First Armored Division, which defected to the opposition in March. These clashes continued through September 20, killing about three dozen more, including several unarmed protesters and other civilians, doctors said. They said the dead included an infant and a doctor whose ambulance was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while he was rushing to collect wounded from Kentucky Intersection. Several unarmed protesters were killed September 20 in a mortar strike on their sit-in, the Associated Press reported.
Also on September 19, Central Security forces occupied Jumhuri hospital, on the main thoroughfare of al-Zubairi Street, and began firing on First Armored Division targets from a sandbagged position they created on the rooftop, two doctors from the hospital told Human Rights Watch. The security forces threatened doctors who protested the occupation of the hospital, prompting medical staff to close the emergency room and many doctors and patients to flee, the doctors said.
The occupation of a hospital and mistreatment of medical workers by government forces violates the duty to respect and protect medical facilities and personnel in all circumstances.
In Taizz, Republican Guards and Central Security forces opened fire September 19 on a largely peaceful rally called to protest the killings in Sanaa, killing three and wounding about 20 others with live ammunition, a doctor treating the protesters and three local activists told Human Rights Watch.
Yemeni officials denied security forces used weapons and accused local residents and protesters of shooting one another. Yemen’s state news agency Saba said protesters threw firebombs at a power station near Sanaa University. Three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there was an incident in which demonstrators threw firebombs at Central Security cars on al-Zeraa Street, but that this was more than one-and-a-half hours after security forces had opened fire on the protesters there and at Kentucky Intersection.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provides that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force.” When the use of force is necessary, law enforcement officials must “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.” Intentional lethal use of firearms is permissible only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
Systematic or widespread unlawful killings, carried out as a state policy, constitute crimes against humanity. International law rejects impunity for serious human rights crimes, such as crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said. International treaties require states parties to ensure that alleged perpetrators of serious crimes are prosecuted, including those who give the orders for these crimes, or are in a position of authority and fail to prevent the crimes.
Denial of medical aid is a form of inhuman treatment and may be a violation of the right to life guaranteed by international law, as it creates a life-threatening situation for seriously injured people. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms also stipulate that even in circumstances in which the use of force and firearms is lawful and unavoidable, “law enforcement officials shall… ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment.”
In addition to ensuring there is no immunity for international crimes, Human Rights Watch said, foreign governments should freeze the assets of Saleh and top security officials, and formally suspend all security aid and weapons sales to Yemen until authorities stop these attacks, conduct impartial investigations into those responsible, and hold them to account. Foreign governments also should call on the UN Security Council to urgently address the Yemen crisis, as well as support the push for a human rights monitoring office in Yemen.
“This week’s events at the UN General Assembly shouldn’t distract from the human tragedy unfolding in Yemen,” said Stork. “The UN Security Council call on August 9 for maximum restraint in Yemen has been ignored, so now it should act to ensure Saleh’s government ends these abuses.”
Human Rights Watch has confirmed 219 deaths in attacks by security forces and pro-government gunmen on largely peaceful protests that began in February against Saleh’s 33-year rule. More than 1,000 protesters have been wounded from live gunfire or from teargas, often fired from expired US-manufactured canisters at close range.