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.