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Moment of truth for Yemen

April 6, 2011



“The shooting started from different buildings around the same time and continued for more than 30 minutes.”

An eyewitness describing to Amnesty International an attack on a protest camp in Sana’a on 18 March 2011 which reportedly left 52 people dead.

The first few months of 2011 have seen a rapid deterioration in the human rights situation in Yemen. The most shocking manifestation of this has been the brutal repression of protests calling for reform, and increasingly for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stand down, fuelled by frustration at corruption, unemployment and repression of freedoms in the country and partly inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt. Scores of protesters have been killed and hundreds injured after security forces have repeatedly used live ammunition to break up demonstrations.

The response of the authorities has been woefully inadequate. While investigations have been announced into some of the killings, they inspire little confidence. In some cases, almost no details have been made public about the nature and scope of the investigation. In others, information revealed about the nature of the investigating body raises serious questions about its ability to conduct thorough, independent and impartial investigations. As far as Amnesty International is aware, the judicial authorities have launched only one investigation – into the killings of protesters on 18 March. No judicial proceedings against members of the security forces are known to have been opened.

The track record of the authorities in investigating allegations of serious human rights violations by the security forces is very poor. Crucially, they have failed to adequately investigate reports of massive violations committed in the context of the unrest in the south of Yemen against those seen as secessionists; in the name of countering terrorism against those accused of belonging to or supporting al-Qa’ida; and in the context of the intermittent conflict in the north between government forces and the Huthi rebel movement against suspected Huthi supporters and, more widely, the civilian population of the region. While rarely in the spotlight of the international media in the same way that the recent repression of pro-reform protests has been, these abuses and the lack of accountability for them are of no less concern.

Reports of excessive and lethal use of force against protesters calling for the secession of the south of the country have continued over recent months, but, as far as Amnesty International is aware, no one has been held accountable either for the latest deaths or the dozens of others which have occurred in protests since 2007.

Scores of people suspected of links to al-Qa’ida have been killed by security forces over the last couple of years. While the Yemeni government clearly has a duty to combat terrorism and take measures to protect citizens and others within their jurisdiction from attack by armed groups, who have killed dozens of Yemenis and foreigners in recent years, some of the killings by government forces may have amounted to extrajudicial executions. In no case, however, are investigations known to have been launched to establish whether the use of lethal force by the security forces was lawful or not.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians have been killed in the conflict in Sa’dah since 2004, many as a result of apparently indiscriminate attacks and other violations of international humanitarian law by government forces, as well as abuses by rebel fighters. A parliamentary fact-finding committee was formed to investigate violations committed during the latest round of conflict but its findings have not been made public. There is no indication that the Yemeni authorities have conducted prompt, impartial and thorough investigations into allegations of violations of international humanitarian law during the conflict.

Hundreds of people suspected of supporting secession in the south, of having links to al-Qa’ida or of supporting the Huthi movement have been detained without charge or trial in recent years and routinely denied the opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention.

Most have been detained incommunicado for months before being allowed access to family members and some have reportedly been subjected to torture or other ill-treatment. The authorities have generally failed to ensure investigations of any kind are conducted into reports of such abuses.

Yemen now faces a moment of truth. Having sought the international community’s support to improve the economic situation in the country, the authorities must accept that they also need its help to carry out investigations that can uncover the full facts, the truth, about the recent protest deaths in the country. This should be the springboard for a much wider process of dealing with the heavy legacy of impunity for patterns of violations in recent years.

The international community also now needs to put pressure on the Yemeni authorities to invite in international expertise to help carry out independent investigations, and it needs to undertake a fundamental reassessment of its provision of security assistance to Yemen.

This report sets out Amnesty International’s grave concerns about the government’s response to the swelling protests calling for reform that have occurred this year and the authorities’ failure to adequately investigate unlawful killings and other violations by its forces. It also provides an update on concerns since July 2010 arising from Yemen’s other major challenges in the field of security and human rights, as presented in Amnesty International’s report of August 2010, Yemen: Cracking Down Under Pressure.1 However, it does not address other important human rights issues – violence and discrimination against women, the detention and deportation of refugees and asylum-seekers, the death penalty, torture and other ill treatment – except when they are directly related to the concerns highlighted here.

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