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(New York) – A new law granting amnesty to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his aides violates Yemen’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The sweeping law provides domestic immunity from criminal prosecution for serious international crimes such as the deadly attacks on peaceful demonstrators in 2011.

The law enacted by Parliament on January 21, 2012 grants blanket immunity to Saleh from any prosecution during his 33-year rule. It also shields Saleh’s aides from prosecution for “political crimes,” as long as they are not terrorist acts. Last year’s attacks on protesters might be classified as political and therefore exempted from prosecution, Human Rights Watch said.

“This law sends the disgraceful message that there is no consequence for killing those who express dissent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Yemeni government should be investigating senior officials linked to serious crimes, not letting them get away with murder.”

An accord brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), that Saleh signed in November 2011, instructed the parliament, which is dominated by the ruling party, to pass a law granting immunity to Saleh and his aides in exchange for the president ceding all power by February 21, 2012. Yemeni Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who is serving as acting head of state, was expected to sign the law immediately.

An article in the law says it may not be “annulled” or “appealed.” However, providing immunity from prosecution for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and other gross violations of human rights violates international law, Human Rights Watch said. International treaties, including the Convention against Torture and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, require parties to ensure alleged perpetrators of serious crimes are prosecuted. As recently as January 6, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay reasserted that an amnesty cannot be granted for serious crimes under international law.

The Yemeni constitution authorizes the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of laws in cases and pleas. Article 51 of the constitution of Yemen says citizens have the right of recourse to the courts to protect their rights and lawful interests. Article 153 of the constitution designates the Supreme Court as the highest judicial authority in the land and empowers it to strike down laws that are unconstitutional.

Yemen’s amnesty law does not prevent courts in other countries from prosecuting serious human rights crimes committed in Yemen under universal jurisdiction laws, Human Rights Watch said.

“Courts outside Yemen can and should ignore this amnesty and prosecute serious international crimes committed by the Saleh government,” Whitson said.

Yemen’s next government also could request the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take jurisdiction over serious international human rights crimes committed during the protests against Saleh, Human Rights Watch said. Although Yemen is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC, it could accept that court’s jurisdiction over any eligible cases since 2002, when the Rome Statute went into effect. The UN Security Council also could refer crimes in Yemen to the ICC.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed the deaths of 270 protesters and bystanders during attacks by government security forces and gangs on largely peaceful demonstrations against Saleh’s rule in 2011, most in the capital, Sanaa. Dozens more civilians were killed last year in apparently indiscriminate attacks by security forces on populated areas during clashes with armed opposition fighters. Human Rights Watch also has documented a broad pattern of international human rights violations and laws-of-war violations by government security forces in previous years, including apparent indiscriminate shelling in the 2004-2010 civil war with northern Huthi rebels and the use of unnecessary and lethal force since 2007 to quash a separatist movement in the South.

The immunity law instructs Yemen’s government to submit draft legislation to parliament for national reconciliation and transitional justice and to “ensure the non-recurrence of violations of human rights and humanitarian law.” The concept of “transitional justice” as set out by the United Nations includes a range of judicial and non-judicial measures such as criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, and reparations to victims.

“Transitional justice without the justice is pretty hollow,” Whitson said. “Failing to prosecute will reinforce Yemen’s culture of impunity and signal to abusive leaders worldwide that there are no consequences for political murder.”

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