(Sanaa) – Yemen’s transition to a democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law is at risk unless the new government moves swiftly on security reform and accountability for past crimes, Human Rights Watch said today.
The transition government of President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi also should ensure that security forces on all sides release unlawfully detained prisoners and decommission child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said. The government should repeal provisions of an array of laws that restrict free expression, association, and assembly, and that discriminate or fail to protect women and girls. Human Rights Watch met in Sanaa with Yemeni government officials, political party leaders, and civil society members during a trip to Yemen from March 15 to April 3, 2012.
“While Yemen’s new government has taken several promising steps, the repressive security apparatus of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains largely intact,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Civilian leaders reiterated that they cannot move forward on accountability and reform of the security services so long as Saleh continues to play a hand in directing various security forces there.”
The Human Rights Watch delegation, led by Whitson, met with members of the Yemeni cabinet and judiciary, including Prime Minister Mohammed Salim Basindwa; Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi; Interior Minister Abdul-Qader Qahtan; Human Rights Minister Huryah Mashhoor; Legal Affairs Minister Mohammed Ahmed al-Mikhlafi; the Supreme Judicial Council chairman, Esam Abdulwahab al-Samawi; Justice Minister Murshed Ali al-Arashani; and Prosecutor General Ali Ahmed al-Awash.
The delegation also met with intelligence and security chiefs, including Ali Mohamed al-Anisi, chairman of the National Security Bureau; Gen. Ahmed Ali Saleh, commander of the Republican Guard; Brig.-Gen. Yayha Saleh, chief of Central Security Forces; and Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division, which defected to the political opposition in March 2011. It also met with Hamid al-Ahmar, the head of a powerful clan whose fighters clashed with Saleh’s forces during the uprising.
Hadi, who was inaugurated in February after a yearlong uprising against Saleh, and the caretaker cabinet that took office in December have made progress in a number of areas, Human Rights Watch said. Positive steps include partially demilitarizing major cities and making a small number of leadership changes within the security units and the Supreme Judiciary Council, Yemen’s top judicial authority. The government also has pledged to draft a new constitution, commence a national dialogue, and reform electoral laws in advance of parliamentary elections in 2014.
The government is drafting a transitional justice law that would empower a truth commission to investigate past violations, including deadly attacks on largely peaceful protesters by government forces and gangs in 2011, and compensate victims. In addition, it is working on measures to increase participation of women in public life and has permitted the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to open an office in Yemen.
However, Human Rights Watch found that Sanaa and other cities remain divided into zones controlled by an array of military, paramilitary, and tribal forces, and that Hadi’s efforts to reorganize them under a central command have stalled. Moreover, with few exceptions, the leadership and membership of these units remain unchanged, despite documentation by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups of serious violations by their forces, including the Central Security Services, the Republican Guard, and the Political Security and National Security agencies during the 2011 uprising and in previous years.
In addition, the country has yet to complete any investigations into the abuses committed by these forces, including their role in attacks on peaceful protests that killed at least 270 demonstrators and bystanders, the excessive use of force to police demonstrations, and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, and to hold those responsible to account.
Saleh’s relatives and other loyalists of the former president head security forces including the Republican Guard and Central Security, and the civilian leadership in the country has stated that it has no control over these forces.
The US Pentagon has stated that it plans to spend $75 million this year in military training and donations of equipment to Yemen to fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and affiliated armed Islamist groups, provided the new government shows sufficient progress toward reform. The US suspended $150 million in such assistance during the uprising last year. In the past, US security assistance has gone to individual units of the Yemeni security services, including the Yemeni Air Force and Central Security’s Counterterrorism Unit.
Human Rights Watch called for the United States and other donors to ensure that they do not provide military aid to individual units of the security services that have been implicated in serious abuses and where there have been no clear steps to ensure accountability for these abuses.
“The US government has no business resuming aid, overt or covert, to security forces that are implicated in murdering Yemen’s citizens and refuse to accept accountability for these abuses,” Whitson said. “Direct military aid to these forces could undermine the government’s ability to ensure accountability and bring peace and security to the country.”
In addition, Human Rights Watch asked regional and international bodies including the
US, EU, Gulf states, and the UN Security Council, to ban travel and freeze foreign assets of current and former officials considered most responsible for human rights crimes in Yemen until these abuses are halted, genuine steps are taken to investigate them, those responsible are held to account, and security forces are vetted.
Investigations into the violations of the past year appear to be stalled, and it remains uncertain whether there will be any meaningful accountability for those responsible. For example, not one person has been convicted for the March 18, 2011 attack by pro-government snipers on a peaceful protest in Sanaa that killed 45 people. Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Central Security forces deployed nearby had failed to stop the killing spree. The key suspect – a governor’s son who was a colonel in the Criminal Investigation Department – remains a fugitive. General Prosecutor al-Awash said he did not know how many other suspects were security force members.
While the draft transitional justice law is a positive step, Human Rights Watch opposes provisions that bar prosecution of government officials for human rights crimes. These provisions are based on a law passed by Yemen’s parliament in January 2012 that grants blanket immunity to Saleh and immunity from all political crimes except terrorism to all those who served with him during his 33-year rule – language that could cover any major human rights violations committed by the government during the course of official duties. Such immunity violates Yemen’s international obligations to prosecute serious human rights crimes.
In addition, the law does not define or specify how it distinguishes “political” crimes from “terrorist” crimes. The UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism’s definition of terrorism includes acts committed with the intent of causing death or serious injury, for the purpose of “provoking a state of terror, intimidating a population, or compelling a government or international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.
Moreover, the panel to be formed to investigate past abuses may not be able to compel witnesses to testify or government officials or agencies to provide information they hold. This amounts to an open invitation for those responsible for abuses, or witnesses thereto, to resist revealing the chain of command or other details of human rights violations.
“Redress is an essential component of justice, but a truth commission without the judicial power to learn the truth is an affront to victims,” Whitson said. “Burying the mistakes of the past is a sure path toward reinforcing impunity.”
Human Rights Watch pressed the leaders of armed forces on all sides to immediately free anyone who has been arbitrarily detained or to promptly transfer them to judicial authorities. Human Rights Watch in February, March, and April interviewed 22 people, including opposition protesters and fighters, who described their incommunicado detention by government security and intelligence forces in 2011 and in the first quarter of 2012, as well as a relative of another recently released detainee. The former detainees said they were held for periods of a few days to seven months by forces including the Republican Guards and National Security. All 22 and the relative of the additional former detainee made credible allegations of physical or psychological torture and other ill-treatment in detention.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed family members who gave credible evidence that security or intelligence agencies had forcibly disappeared seven people, including protesters and Republican Guards, in separate incidents in December 2011 and February 2012 who were still being held. Some relatives said they or other witnesses saw the men taken to or being held in the detention centers of entities including the Political Security Organization, Central Security, and the Republican Guards.
In meetings with Human Rights Watch, General Saleh of the Republican Guard, General al-Ahmar of the renegade First Armored Division, and Hamid al-Ahmar, a leader of the al-Ahmar clan and a member of the supreme committee of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah), the largest opposition party and a key Islamic force in Yemen, denied that forces under their command were unlawfully holding detainees. But both General al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar accused the Republican Guard of holding several dozen of their fighters, while General Saleh in turn accused the First Armored Division of holding seven dozen Republican Guards.
Child Soldiers and School Occupations
It also appears that government and other armed forces are using child soldiers in their units. Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 children who said they were deployed or being trained as soldiers. The children named their various units as the Republican Guard, the First Armored Division, Central Security, or the al-Ahmar militia. Deployment of children in armed groups is a clear violation of international law.
Human Rights Watch also visited 19 schools in Sanaa, of which six were occupied by troops from the First Armored Division, while another was closed due to the presence of First Armored Division troops surrounding it. Gen. Ali Mohsen told Human Rights Watch that the division was only in one school at present and had only entered schools pursuant to an agreement with the Ministry of Education. He further promised to ensure that First Armored Division soldiers would clear out of any remaining schools.
Reform of the judiciary is another critical task. Notwithstanding Hadi’s appointment of three new members to the Supreme Judiciary Council, the nine-member body remains under the direct control of the executive and should be restructured to ensure an independent and impartial judiciary. The Specialized Criminal Court and specialized Media Court, which fail to guarantee defendants’ basic rights to due process, should be immediately abolished or at a minimum suspended until they have been reformed so as to guarantee the basic rights to a fair trial.
Sultan al-Barakani, head of the General People’s Congress (GPC) bloc in Parliament, promised Human Rights Watch he would support any legislation the cabinet sends him seeking suspension of the specialized courts or abusive laws. The GPC is Saleh’s party and holds a parliamentary majority.
Legal provisions that Human Rights Watch called on the new government to repeal or suspend immediately include portions of Yemen’s Press and Publication Law of 1990 that prohibit criticism of the head of state and require journalists to uphold “the goals of the Yemeni Revolution” and “national unity.”
The government also should tighten language in the Law on Organizing Demonstrations and Marches of 2003 that requires organizers to notify the authorities three days in advance of large protests and rallies so that it is not used arbitrarily to suppress freedom of assembly, and strike the law’s provision that forbids demonstrators to question the “unity of the lands.” The former government used both laws to justify widespread crackdowns on media, protesters, and civil society both during the 2011 uprising and in previous years.
Another law the government should suspend or reform is the Law on Associations and Foundations of 2001, which requires nongovernmental organizations to have one million Yemeni reals (about $4,600 – a large sum in Yemen) in seed money, and grants the Social Affairs Ministry extensive supervision over their affairs. The ministry should immediately end the longstanding practice of obstructing civil society groups by denying them licenses for years at a time.
The government also should revoke the death penalty. As an immediate first step, President Hadi should commute the death sentences of three men – Muhammad Tahir Sumum, Walid Husain Haikal, and Muhammad Abd al-Qasim al-Tawil – who allege that they committed their crimes when they were juveniles and retry them in courts that meet international due-process standards. The three men have exhausted all appeals, and their execution warrants were signed by former president Saleh.
All sides, including Islamic conservatives in Parliament, should promote gender equality. Human Rights Watch called on Abdul Wahab al-Anisi, the general secretary of Islah, and Hamid al-Ahmar to support enactment of a minimum marital age to prevent the widespread practice of child marriage. Human Rights Watch has documented how child marriage jeopardizes Yemeni girls’ access to education, harms their health, and keeps them second-class citizens. Hamid al-Ahmar told Human Rights Watch he would support a minimum marital age. The government also should end discriminatory practices in the Personal Status Law, such as the provision that a female virgin’s silence signifies consent to marry.
National Unity Dialogue
To address allegations of exclusion or discrimination of groups including youth protesters, residents of the southern provinces, followers of the Zaidi strand of Shia Islam, and the minority so-called “al-Akhdam” community, the government should ensure that the national dialogue conference mandated in Saleh’s exit deal develops effective measures to ensure equality and non-discrimination.
“Events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya show that removing an authoritarian leader is only the first of many difficult steps,” Whitson said. “The best way for Hadi to gain the support of all Yemenis is to ensure their grievances are addressed.”