Justice Deficit Marks Transition Anniversary

News and Press Release
Originally published

A Year Into New Government, Risk of Impunity for Current, Past Crimes

(Sanaa, February 23, 2013) – Yemen’s transition government should take urgent steps to ensure justice for serious human rights violations during the 2011 uprising, and since the inauguration one year ago of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, Human Rights Watch said today. As part of those efforts, the authorities should immediately carry out an investigation into the deaths of at least four protesters in clashes with state security forces in Aden on February 20 and 21, 2013.

Impartial investigations, redress for victims, and vetting of state security forces implicated in serious crimes are crucial to ensure that the transition government breaks with the impunity that marked the 33-year rule of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Human Rights Watch said.

Hadi, who was inaugurated February 25, 2012, has taken steps toward wresting the security forces from the control of Saleh’s close relatives and addressing the grievances of south Yemen residents. He also ordered an end to any use of child soldiers. However Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the generally slow pace of reform, including the president’s failure to appoint the members of a committee he announced in September 2012, to investigate human rights crimes committed during the uprising.

“Despite some noticeable improvements in Yemen, there have been new human rights violations, and entrenched interests on all sides have stymied efforts to punish those responsible,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “President Hadi should crack down on rights abusers and consolidate the rule of law.”

On February 15, 2013, Human Rights Watch completed a two-week visit to Yemen that included meetings with numerous government and security officials, party leaders, and civil society members from across the political spectrum.

Human Rights Watch found credible evidence of new violations that include attacks on media and on largely peaceful protesters by both government and non-state forces. Government officials as well as influential sheiks and opposition leaders should set a no-tolerance policy for such attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 20 and 21 in Aden, Central Security Forces opened fire on southern protesters, including some who were armed with rocks and guns, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The protesters were attempting to interrupt anniversary celebrations by members of the Islamist-leaning party Islah for Hadi’s single-candidate election as president on February 21, 2012.

In the process at least four protesters were shot and killed, and at least 15 others were wounded by gunfire, according to local human rights activists. Some activists and a local medical worker told Human Rights Watch the number of dead could be as high as 14, with up to 47 wounded. Security forces also detained at least two leaders of the Southern Movement (Herak), Qassem Askar and Hussein Bin Shouaib. Yemeni government officials said six Central Security Force members were wounded in the clashes. On February 22, pro-secession gunmen attacked a military checkpoint in Aden, killing one soldier and injuring three others, the news agency Xinhua reported.

Yemeni authorities should investigate these incidents, Human Rights Watch said. They should also investigate previous incidents in Aden resulting in deaths and serious injuries, including the killings of two protesters by Central Security Forces on February 11.

Law enforcement officials should uphold international policing standards when carrying out their duties, Human Rights Watch said. Firearms should only be used in response to an imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.

Intentional lethal use of firearms is permissible only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint in such use, and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved.

In meetings with Yemeni government officials, Human Rights Watch emphasized that accountability for past crimes was a necessary component of military and political reforms.

Stalled Transitional Justice Human Rights Watch urged Hadi to use his executive powers to reform and enact a long-delayed transitional justice law that would, among other measures, create a historical record of serious human rights crimes of the past and provide redress to victims of those abuses. The law has stalled in parliament because of bitter disagreements over the time span it would cover. Some factions want it to address only 2011 while others want the law to date to Yemen’s 1994 civil war or to include Saleh’s entire 33-year presidency.

The latest version of the law, submitted to parliament by the president’s office, would remove the creation of a historical record, and limit the scope of investigations to 2011. This draft also explicitly states that any investigations conducted under the law would be subject to the January 2012 immunity law that parliament, at the behest of Gulf Cooperation Council states, as well as the European Union and the United States, granted Saleh and those who served with him.

If parliament fails to pass a meaningful transitional justice law, Hadi can sign the law himself, under the terms of a two-year transition blueprint that grants the president authority to pass laws unilaterally if parliament fails to reach a consensus. The blueprint was facilitated by the United Nations and signed by both Saleh’s General Peoples Congress party and the Joint Meetings Parties political opposition.

“The draft transitional justice law has been gutted to the point of nothingness,” Stork said. “President Hadi should use the authority he has to approve a law that delivers justice, not a whitewash.”

Human Rights Watch also called on the Yemeni authorities to reopen a criminal investigation into the so-called Friday of Dignity massacre of March 18, 2011, the deadliest attack of the uprising by pro-Saleh gunmen against largely peaceful protesters. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that the previous government’s investigation was marred by blatant political interference and a failure to investigate evidence that may have implicated high government officials.

The attack, which killed at least 45 protesters and wounded 200 others, became an emblem of the brutal response to the uprising by security forces and pro-government gangs. Attorney General Ali Ahmed Nasser al-Awash, in his February 14 meeting with Human Rights Watch, denied any flaws in the investigation. However, Justice Minister Morshed Ali al-Arshani told Human Rights Watch a few days earlier that he agreed a new investigation is needed.

In its report on the attack, Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to set a date for Yemen to carry out fair and impartial investigations into major human rights crimes committed during 2011, and to authorize an international investigation if the Yemeni authorities fail to meet that deadline.

The transitional government has begun to compensate victims of the March 18 attack as well as thousands of others who were wounded, and families of hundreds of people killed during the uprising. But many victims have alleged political discrimination in the disbursement of the funds through a private charity. The government should ensure swift and fair distribution of the compensation, Human Rights Watch said.

National Dialogue Hadi has scheduled a National Dialogue conference – mandated as part of the two-year political transition agreement – to begin on March 18, the second anniversary of the Friday of Dignity attack. In January, Hadi ordered the creation of two national dialogue committees to address two key grievances in the south: land disputes and the dismissal of southern civil, security and military personnel after the 1994 civil war in which northern troops defeated southern forces. Human Rights Watch called this an important first step but said more needed to be done to ensure a meaningful dialogue process.

“National dialogue that fails to recognize and make amends for past violations against all sectors of Yemeni society will only serve as a further affront to the Friday of Dignity anniversary,” Stork said.

Human Rights Watch
© Copyright, Human Rights Watch - 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA