(Sanaa) – Yemeni security forces apparently used excessive lethal force against peaceful demonstrators in Aden on February 20 and 21, 2014. The government should promptly, impartially, and thoroughly investigate the incident, which left one protester dead and five wounded, and hold all those responsible for abuses to account.
State security and military forces unnecessarily used teargas and live ammunition against supporters of the Southern Movement (Hirak), an umbrella group seeking independence or greater autonomy for southern Yemen, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Reports of excessive use of force by security forces against southern protesters have declined since the change of government in February 2012, but the government’s record of investigating incidents remains poor, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Yemeni government needs to investigate why people were killed and wounded at an apparently peaceful protest,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Given the failure to investigate similar past incidents, it’s crucial for the government to make its findings public and to hold accountable any security officers who used excessive force.”
A media officer for the protesters, Salah Mothana Abdullah, 37, told Human Rights Watch thatat least 5000 Hirak supporters gathered in the central al-`Orod Square in the Khur Maksar neighborhood of Aden on February 20, 2014, for two days of demonstrations. He said they were protesting the proposal by the recently concluded National Dialogue to create a federal system made up of six states in Yemen. Three protesters and a bystander told Human Rights Watch that the protesters appeared unarmed and did not resort to any violence until after the government crackdown the following afternoon. The government has not issued a statement on the incident.
Abdullah and another witness said that on the first day, state security and military forces increased their presence both on foot and in armored military and security vehicles in the streets of Khur Maksar. Abdullah said:
I was in a shop in the square on Thursday afternoon and saw three military vehicles, two [military] Special Security Force vehicles and one General Security vehicle, parked in the square.… At around 5 p.m., I noticed four snipers on the rooftop of the former Ethiopian Embassy, facing the square. Their faces were masked.The first demonstration was planned for that evening.
People started to approach the square, and got to around 15 meters from the Special Security Forces. I counted at least 60 [soldiers/personnel], most of them not visibly carrying guns, but carrying batons, teargas canisters, and canister launchers. I saw around 12 of them who were carrying guns shooting live rounds into the air, and three or four took aim directly at the protesters.
Abd al-Khaliq Mothana, 40, a local freelance journalist, told Human Rights Watch that at about 6 p.m. “at least 100 protesters were carrying out the evening prayer in the street, when soldiers suddenly started throwing teargas canisters at them.” He said that at about 10:30 p.m. he saw soldiers fire live ammunition toward a crowd of protesters gathered next to Ahl al-Bait Mosque, near the square. Visibility was difficult because it was dark, he said, and the security forces continued to fire teargas into the crowd. Two protesters standing about 7 meters from him were wounded by gunfire, one in the abdomen and the other in the right hand.
Despite the crackdown, protesters continued to gather in the square throughout the night, only dispersing at 3 a.m. Some gathered in a neighboring square but were not pursued by security forces.
On February 21, security and military forces increased their presence in the area and tried to prevent the protesters from returning to al-`Orod square. According to Mothana, the journalist, some protesters had travelled from Hadhramout, Abyan, Shabwa, Lahj, and other towns in southern Yemen. As protester numbers increased, security forces blocked the roads leading to the square with military vehicles and water cannons.
Zain al-Mahbashi, 47, a local businessman, told Human Rights Watch:
As we were finishing our midday prayer at Ahl al-Bait Mosque, about 20 meters from the square, we saw that riot police had surrounded the mosque and were firing teargas canisters at the main gate of the mosque courtyard. We took this as a sign that the security forces did not want us to gather in large groups, so we left the mosque one by one. As I was leaving the mosque, I saw at least 100 of the military’s Special Security Forces personnel and riot police, and four military armored vehicles, surrounding us.
Mothana said that he saw at least 12 wounded protesters “but because of the teargas I was not able to see how they got hurt.” Abdullah, the media officer, said that Abd al-`Alim Hussein Ahmed, 21, a protester from Abyan, was shot and killed.
An employee at the al-Naqib hospital, where the injured were brought, told Human Rights Watch that he knew of three protesters with gunshot wounds – to the head, right hand, and back – and eight with respiratory problems from the teargas.
Four witnesses to the events on February 21 said the protesters remained peaceful until about 1:30 p.m., when security forces assaulted them as they attempted to enter the square. The witnesses all said that the protesters set about seven car tires on fire and threw stones at the security forces.
Yemeni authorities should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which provide that all security forces shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people “except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.”
Human Rights Watch documented multiple incidents in Aden prior to the 2011 uprising in which security and military forces routinely used lethal force that was excessive in relation to any danger the protesters presented. In all of the cases, security forces used teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition from assault rifles and machine guns. Since the change in government, southern activists had expressed fewer complaints about security forces using excessive force during demonstrations.
More generally, in the past three years Human Rights Watch has documented many incidents in which armed forces used apparent excessive force and the president or government announced investigations. But no results of those investigations have been made public.
“Yemeni security forces have a well-documented history of using excessive force against demonstrators, particularly in the south,” Stork said. “This incident unfortunately harkens back to the brutal tactics of the previous government.”