(Sanaa) – Investigators never questioned top officials in the criminal investigation by Yemen’s previous government into the shooting of demonstrators during the so-called Friday of Dignity Massacre on March 18, 2011, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh dismissed his attorney general when he demanded that government officials be questioned in the shooting deaths of 45 protesters – three of them children – and wounding of 200 others. It was the deadliest attack on protesters of Yemen’s uprising.

The 69-page report, “Unpunished Massacre: Yemen’s Failed Response to the ‘Friday of Dignity’ Killings,” found that the previous government’s criminal investigation was fraught with political interference and ignored evidence implicating government officials. Prosecutors also failed to investigate why security forces led by Saleh’s nephew abandoned their posts at the scene before the gunmen opened fire. Yemeni authorities should reopen the investigation, Human Rights Watch said.

“Nearly two years after the Friday of Dignity massacre, the victims and their families await justice,” said Letta Tayler, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.“If Yemen doesn’t fairly investigate and prosecute those responsible for this deadly attack, it risks perpetuating the culture of impunity at the heart of Yemen’s uprising.”

Impunity for serious violations of human rights by state security forces was a persistent problem during Saleh’s 33-year rule, Human Rights Watch said. During the 2011 uprising, security forces carried out several attacks on largely peaceful protests and facilitated other attacks by armed gangs believed to be Saleh loyalists or paid thugs. After Saleh left office in February 2012, transition President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi promised accountability for serious violations during the uprising.

The report is based on field research in Sanaa that includes interviews with more than 60 witnesses, defendants, lawyers, human rights defenders, and government officials, as well as a review of more than 1,000 pages of court documents on the killings. Human Rights Watch also reviewed several videos by journalists and other witnesses that showed the shootings.

After multiple postponements, a criminal trial based on the flawed investigation began in Sanaa in September. The court listed 43 of the 78 defendants as fugitives from justice. The fugitives included two sons of a pro-Saleh governor, both ranking security officials, who are the top two suspects. Victims and their lawyers accuse the security forces of making no effort to find those at large. Lawyers for both victims and defendants are demanding a new investigation.

Justice Minister Mushid al-Arshani even said on the first anniversary of the attack that “the real perpetrators escaped and only their accomplices and supporters are in jail.”

A judge suspended the trial proceedings in November after lawyers for the victims filed a motion seeking the indictment of top former and current government officials, including Saleh and close relatives. Lawyers for the victims say the eight defendants in detention – the remaining 27 were provisionally released – are innocent or at most peripheral accomplices. They include a visually impaired homeless man and a garbage collector.

The killings took place at the southern edge of Change Square, a then-burgeoning protest camp. As tens of thousands of protesters ended their midday prayer at a rally they had named the Friday of Dignity, dozens of gunmen in civilian clothes shot at them from the street and houses, including the Sanaa residence of a provincial governor.

Abd al-Rashid al-Faqih, a local human rights activist, told Human Rights Watch: “The bullets were falling on the protesters like a rain shower. I could see them hit walls and doors. In areas where the smoke cleared I could see gunmen on a roof shooting randomly at protesters.”

Nearly all those killed or wounded were young men who were shot in the head or upper body. The indictment charges 52 of the defendants with shooting with intent to kill. Many defendants are current or former security force members or members of Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress.

Investigators did not question top security chiefs despite testimony from witnesses that the Central Security Forces, a paramilitary force run at the time by Saleh’s nephew, Yahya Saleh, had withdrawn from the area the night before the shootings even though the interior minister at the time had been alerted to a possible attack. The Central Security Forces failed to return to the area for at least 30 minutes after the shooting began, despite calls for their help, witnesses said. Armed only with batons and a water cannon, the Central Security Forces stood by as gunmen fired or retreated behind the security forces for cover, witnesses said.

“The Central Security Forces’ failure to even try to stop the shootings suggests either gross negligence or complicity with the gunmen,” Tayler said.

In response to requests in December for comment on our findings, the interior minister and attorney general gave Human Rights Watch brief statements on February 5, 2013, that authorities would follow procedures in the case “in accordance with the law.”

Accountability for the attacks is complicated by a law passed by the Yemeni parliament in January 2012 in exchange for Saleh’s resignation. The law grants Saleh and all those who served with him sweeping immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during his presidency. Lawyers for victims said their motion seeking the indictment of Saleh and other former and current officials could serve as a test case against the grant of immunity.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the Yemeni parliament to repeal the immunity law, which violates Yemen’s international legal obligations to prosecute serious violations of human rights. Security and intelligence services should make real efforts to apprehend the defendants listed as fugitives, and the courts should review the cases of those detained with the aim of granting provisional release to any who may be unnecessarily jailed.

The United Nations Security Council, as well as concerned countries including the United States and member states of the European Union and Gulf Cooperation Council, should publicly oppose Yemen’s immunity law, Human Rights Watch said. They should impose travel bans and asset freezes on any officials responsible for the serious violations associated with the uprising, including the Friday of Dignity attack. They should also refuse assistance to any security forces implicated in these crimes until those responsible are removed from the ranks and held to account.

Concerned governments should also seek a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council to create an international investigation into the Friday of Dignity attacks and other serious rights violations during the Yemen uprising, should Yemeni efforts fall short, Human Rights Watch said.

Under pressure from victims’ advocates, the Hadi government in recent weeks has paid most of the wounded and the families of those killed during the uprising between 360,000 and 1 million Yemeni rials (US$1,700 to $4,700) though a private foundation. The government also has begun sending dozens of wounded protesters abroad for medical treatment. But dozens of the seriously wounded are still awaiting payments or treatment, and none has received promised pensions. The victims also are awaiting justice.

“Redress for victims doesn’t end with compensation,” Tayler said. “It requires holding those responsible to account.”