The previous Yemeni government’s investigation into the so-called Friday of Dignity massacre on March 18, 2011, in Yemen’s capital is marred throughout by flaws and political interference.
The Yemeni authorities should order a new inquiry into the attack, the deadliest by pro-government gunmen on protesters during the 2011 uprising, Human Rights Watch said. The attack in Sanaa killed 45 people and wounded up to 200 others, and became a symbol of resistance to then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The criminal trial of 78 defendants in the case is scheduled to begin on September 29, 2012.
“The previous government’s investigation of the Friday of Dignity killings was deeply flawed and may have been a brazen attempt to shield government officials from prosecution,” said Letta Tayler, senior Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Yemen’s new government should demonstrate its commitment to justice for serious rights abuses by carrying out a new inquiry.”
Among other flaws in the Friday of Dignity investigation, top officials whom witnesses named as suspects were never sought for questioning, including a governor whose Sanaa rooftop was the main staging area for gunmen as they fired at protesters. Six weeks after the attack, Saleh dismissed the general prosecutor after he demanded the arrests of key suspects, including government officials.
Of 78 suspects indicted in June 2011 for the attack, at least 30 remain at large, including the main defendants – a colonel and his brother who then held top security posts. Lawyers for both defendants and victims allege that the authorities made no serious effort to find the suspects. Only 2 of the 14 defendants in pre-trial detention have been charged with intent to kill. Lawyers for the victims have expressed concern that the detained defendants are innocent bystanders or at most peripheral accomplices, and are also seeking a new investigation into the incident.
The killings took place at the southern edge of Change Square, a then-burgeoning anti-Saleh protest camp. As tens of thousands of protesters ended their midday prayer, masked gunmen began shooting at them from the street, trees, and houses including the Sanaa residence of the governor of Mahweet, a governorate northwest of the capital, according to videos and dozens of witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch and the media or testified to the authorities.
In the days before the shootings, local residents and Saleh loyalists created a 2.5-meter-high brick wall between the protesters and the gunmen that they drenched with gasoline and set on fire as the attack began, creating clouds of smoke that obscured the shooters and trapped the protesters. Protesters tore the wall down and brutally beat the alleged gunmen, according to video and witness accounts.
Nearly all those killed or wounded were protesters hit by gunfire. Most of the dead were shot in the head or chest. The indictment charges 52 of the defendants with firing gunshots with intent to kill.
Investigators did not question top security force members despite evidence that they failed to protect the protesters, Human Rights Watch said. Various security forces were warned of a possible attack and alerted once it began, yet the Central Security Force, a paramilitary unit that had been deployed on the perimeter of Change Square, had moved away the previous night and failed to return for at least 30 minutes after the shooting began.
The Central Security Forces, who were armed only with batons and a water cannon, stood by with some of the pro-government gunmen in plain sight, according to video, witness testimony to the authorities, and interviews with Human Rights Watch. Some of the gunmen retreated through a line of Central Security forces without being stopped, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
Yahya Saleh, the chief of the Central Security Force and former president Saleh’s nephew, told Human Rights Watch in March that there was “no failure” by his forces. He said he sent in forces immediately but that they had only batons and were out-armed by the gunmen.
“The Central Security Forces’ failure to stop the shooting suggests either gross negligence or complicity with the gunmen,” Tayler said. “Yet the General Prosecution never questioned the forces’ chief or investigated their responsibility.
The replacement general prosecutor, Ali Ahmed Nasser al-Awash, who remains in office, denied any meddling by government officials. Any flaws in the case were the result of witnesses and victims’ relatives refusing to cooperate with the investigation, he told Human Rights Watch. Al-Awash acknowledged that the suspects included security force members but said he did not know how many. Lawyers for the victims allege primary defendants are security force members, government officials or members of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party.
Human Rights Watch’s findings about the investigation, to be published in an upcoming report, are based on a review of the indictment, which includes nearly 1,000 pages of testimony; examinations of more than 20 videos of the attack; and interviews with more than three dozen people with knowledge of the case. Those interviewed include witnesses, lawyers for defendants and victims, government officials, and Yemeni and international journalists who were at the scene.
Accountability for the attacks is also complicated by a law the Yemeni parliament passed in January in exchange for Saleh’s resignation, which grants the former president and all those who served with him sweeping immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during his 33-year rule. Lawyers for victims have vowed to challenge the immunity law if it is applied to defendants who are members of the security forces or other government offices.
In September, transition President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi signed a decree authorizing the creation of an independent and impartial commission adhering to international standards to investigate human rights violations during the 2011 uprising. However, even if the panel were to call for prosecutions, there is a risk that the recommendation might not apply to government officials because of the immunity law.
While Hadi’s decree is an important step, a new criminal investigation into the Friday of Dignity attack is needed regardless of the commission of inquiry timetable, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for Yemeni authorities to repeal the immunity law, which violates Yemen’s international legal obligations to prosecute serious violations of human rights.
“The new government’s moves to create a commission of inquiry are critically important,” Tayler said. “But they should not be seen as a substitute for prosecuting those responsible for serious crimes.”