(New York) – Yemeni security forces stormed and shelled hospitals, evicted patients at gunpoint, and beat medics during an assault on Yemen’s protest movement that killed at least 120 people in the flashpoint city of Taizz last year, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is in the United States receiving medical treatment, received amnesty in Yemen for such attacks.
In the 75-page report, “‘No Safe Places’: Yemen’s Crackdown on Protests in Taizz,” Human Rights Watch called on the United States, the European Union, and Persian Gulf states to publicly acknowledge that the domestic immunity granted Saleh and his aides last month has no legal effect outside Yemen.
“President Saleh’s forces killed and wounded hundreds of civilians, evicted hospital patients, and blocked war wounded from reaching care,” said Letta Tayler, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saleh is entitled to medical treatment, but he and his aides have no right to immunity from prosecution for international crimes.”
When Yemenis took to the streets in January 2011 to demand an end to Saleh’s 33-year rule, Taizz, 250 kilometers south of the capital, Sanaa, became a center of both peaceful and armed resistance – and the scene of numerous human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war. “No Safe Places”is based on more than 170 interviews with protesters, doctors, human rights defenders, and other witnesses to attacks in Taizz by state security forces and pro-Saleh gangs from February to December 2011.
Yemeni security forces repeatedly used excessive and lethal force against largely peaceful protesters in Taizz. During attacks on opposition fighters that began in mid-2011, they also indiscriminately shelled populated areas of the city. Government troops conducted much of the shelling from al-Thawra Hospital, the city’s biggest medical center, which they occupied from June to December, virtually closing it to medical care.
One of the biggest attacks on protesters took place on the night of May 29-30 at Freedom Square, in Taizz, when state security forces and armed gangs fired on protesters, set fire to their tents, and bulldozed an outdoor area they had occupied since February. Fifteen protesters were killed and more than 260 wounded. Arif Abd al-Salam, 32, a history teacher and protester, described the security forces’ attack:
They had tanks and bulldozers. They were throwing petrol bombs into the tents and firing from many directions. I saw with my own eyes a man with a loudspeaker calling on the security forces to stop attacking and killing their brothers. He was shot dead with a bullet.
Victims of the Taizz crackdown included both protesters and bystanders. Qaid al-Yusifi, a teacher, was killed on July 9, as he was bringing milk to his children in al-Rawdha, an opposition stronghold that was repeatedly struck by government artillery. Al-Yusifi’s wife, Labiba Hamid Muhammad Saif, told Human Rights Watch that she heard at least three shells hit the area around the couple’s house:
We tried to look out the window because we heard screaming. There were a number of wounded and there were people from the neighborhood trying to rescue them. The electricity was cut and I could not recognize the injured. Then I recognized one of them as my husband, Qaid. He was carrying juice, milk, and water, not bombs or bullets.
Of the 120 deaths Human Rights Watch confirmed in Taizz, 57 were protesters and bystanders killed in attacks by security forces and gangs on largely peaceful rallies and 63 were civilians killed in shelling and other attacks during military operations against tribal opposition fighters. At least 22 victims of the attacks in Taizz were children.
On May 30, during the attack on Freedom Square, security forces and armed gangs forcibly entered five medical facilities receiving injured protesters. At one medical facility, a doctor described a security officer smashing the face of a wounded protester with his gun butt, knocking him unconscious. Inside a mosque on Freedom Square serving as a field hospital, security forces thrust gun butts into protesters’ wounds, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
On November 11, the military shelled al-Rawdha hospital, as civilians wounded that day in other security force attacks rushed there for treatment. Ordnance from the attack on the hospital suggests direct-fire impacts from tanks, indicating that it was deliberate. One patient fell to his death through a hole in the wall created by the blasts.
Many of the unlawful attacks documented in the report were committed by Republican Guards, an elite army unit commanded by Saleh’s son, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, and by Central Security, a paramilitary unit run by the president’s nephew, Gen. Yahya Muhammad Saleh.
The attacks on protesters by Yemeni security forces violated international human rights law, including the right to peaceful assembly and expression, and were contrary to international standards on the use of force and firearms. Denial of medical assistance to injured protesters violated the right to health.
International law governing armed conflict was applicable to the fighting between the security forces and opposition fighters commanded by local sheiks. The security forces violated international law by indiscriminately shelling populated neighborhoods. The security forces’ occupation of hospitals and mistreatment of medical workers violates the principle of medical neutrality and the duty to respect and protect medical facilities and personnel.
Opposition fighters unlawfully placed civilians at risk by deploying in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said. “We asked them not to shoot next to our house,” one al-Rawdha resident said in September, “but they kept on doing so.”
Saleh blamed bloodshed in Taizz and other cities on “terrorists.” In a written response to Human Rights Watch’s findings, the government in December blamed casualties involving protesters and civilians on “sudden attacks … launched by the [opposition] armed militias.” Human Rights Watch’s field research found no evidence of this.
Since April, an accord brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and backed by the US and EU, promised Saleh and his aides blanket immunity if the president ceded power. Saleh signed the deal in November and on January 21, 2012, the Yemeni parliament granted immunity to the president and his aides. As a head of state, Saleh also enjoys diplomatic immunity abroad until he formally leaves office on February 21.
In addition to dismissing the immunity law, the US, EU, and GCC member states should encourage the new Yemeni caretaker government to revoke the measure on grounds it violates Yemen’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said. International law does not recognize amnesty for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of human rights.
“The US, and EU and Gulf states should make loud and clear that the immunity is no good abroad and should be revoked at home,” Tayler said. “No one responsible for grave international crimes should get a free pass.”