By William Fisher
While pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen’s capital, Santa’s, appear to be peaceful and with little police presence, the Yemeni government is deploying their security services and recruiting gangs of thugs to kill and injure demonstrators in other cities where there is little media attention.
This is the conclusion of Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world’s preeminent advocacy organizations. As an example, Stork charges that security forces killed at least nine and injured 150 at peaceful protests in Aden.
HRW says Yemeni security forces “repeatedly used excessive, deadly force on largely peaceful protesters.” Security forces “fired weapons that included assault rifles and machine guns at the protesters, killing at least nine and possibly twice that number, and injuring more than 150, some of them children,” Stork charged.
In a 20-page report, “Days of Bloodshed in Aden,” HRW documents attacks on protesters in Aden from February 16 to 25. The group found that police and military forces also chased and shot at protesters trying to flee the assaults. The forces stopped doctors and ambulances trying to reach protest sites, “fired at people who tried to rescue victims, and removed evidence, such as bullet casings, from the shooting scenes,” HRW says.
“Shooting into crowds is no way to respond to peaceful protests,” said Stork, “Governments in the region and beyond should make clear to Yemen that international assistance comes with the condition of respecting human rights.”
HRW says its report is based on more than 50 interviews with injured protesters and witnesses to the killings, relatives of protesters who were killed, doctors, paramedics, and human rights activists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed video and photo materials that witnesses to the protests provided, as well as hospital records and ballistic evidence that protesters collected after the shootings.
Since 2007 the strategic port of Aden has been the center of protests in Yemen’s southern provinces, where inhabitants are seeking increased economic opportunities and political autonomy or secession. The South was a separate republic until it unified with the North in 1990. On February 3 protesters in Aden and other parts of the South joined calls across Yemen for an end to the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In Aden, security forces have systematically attempted to prevent large protests, although they have allowed them in the capital, Sana'a, since February 22. Nevertheless, groups of several hundred people have protested against President Saleh in various neighborhoods of Aden almost daily since February 15.
Government officials blamed the Southern Movement for the bloodshed. The movement is a loose coalition that has been leading both the protests in the South since 2007 and the more recent demonstrations in Aden against Saleh.
Human Rights Watch found in Aden that security and intelligence forces, including members of Central Security, the general police, the army, and the National Security Bureau, routinely used lethal force that was clearly excessive in relation to the danger presented by the protesters.
In all cases Human Rights Watch documented, security forces used teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, including from assault rifles and machine guns.
HRW says, “Numerous witnesses described the protesters as unarmed and stated in most cases that the protesters presented no threat to others or to surrounding property. Some of the protests were entirely peaceful. During others, protesters threw stones as security forces tried to disperse them.”
The majority of victims were young men and boys. HRW documented the killings of three boys -- two 17-year-olds and one 16-year-old. Many of the injured were children as well. Human Rights Watch also documented several cases in which security forces killed or wounded bystanders. One man was hit and killed by a bullet as he observed the protests through the window of his home, HRW claims.
HRW charges that security forces “quickly removed bullet casings from the streets, and authorities forced families to bury the bodies of those killed immediately, in an apparent attempt to suppress evidence and to prevent massive public funeral processions. In at least one case, the authorities forged a forensic report of a person killed in a protest.”
The exact number of those killed and injured during the attacks in Aden remains unknown. Authorities did not release information on casualties and prevented independent observers from reaching government hospitals. Many of those who were injured did not go to the government hospitals after learning that security forces were entering them and arresting injured protesters, and the capacity of private hospitals was overstretched.
Yemeni security forces detained dozens of peaceful protesters and Southern Movement activists in Aden during the same period, Human Rights Watch found. Some detainees were released, but Human Rights Watch documented at least eight cases in which Southern Movement and activists “disappeared” after being detained.
Human Rights Watch documented the same patterns of use of excessive force by Yemeni security forces against southern protesters in its 2009 report “In the Name of Unity.”
“The recent killings and injuries are the latest chapter in President Saleh’s brutal attempts to stifle legitimate dissent in Aden and surrounding areas,” Stork said. “Instead of forging unity, these unlawful attacks risk driving a further wedge between the government and the people of the South.”
HRW also claimed to have “credible allegations that thousands of peaceful protesters faced live fire by Yemen's military outside Harf Sufyan and that two unarmed civilians paid with their lives.”
“Simply dismissing these reports as Huthi rebel propaganda is not good enough, and authorities should immediately investigate what happened there on March 4,” said HRW’s Stork.
The Yemeni authorities should immediately investigate the apparent killing of two protesters by soldiers during a peaceful protest on March 4, 2011, near the town of Harf Sufyan, HRW said.
Three protesters told HRW that soldiers at a military post shot and killed the men as thousands of anti-government protesters marched toward the
Yemen's Defense Ministry claimed that no march took place and that rebels from northern Yemen known as Huthis attacked the military post and wounded four soldiers.
Over the past seven years, the Huthis - a Zaidi Shia revivalist
movement - have battled the military. The Huthis have strong support among the population in the town of Harf Sufyan and the surrounding district of the same name.
“The world is watching largely peaceful protests in Sana'a, but Yemeni officials are at best standing by or at worst helping gangs assault demonstrators in places far from the public eye,” said HRW’s Stork.
“Governments in the region and beyond claiming to support democratic reform and accountability should urge President Saleh to halt these thuggish attacks now,” Stock said.
On February 23 Saleh promised that security forces would allow peaceful demonstrations and thwart any attacks on protestors. Since then, protests in the capital have been largely peaceful and generally open to journalists.
“Two days after Saleh’s promise, there is more bloodshed,” said Stork. “Other countries, including The United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia, need to press Yemen to stop these senseless and illegal attacks,” he added.
In Washington, Obama administration officials, faced with an abundance of worries about the stability and future of U.S. relations with the nations of the Middle East, are most worried about the fate of President Saleh, because his support has been critical in U.S. efforts to combat al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That fight has taken on new urgency as Yemen has been revealed as an al Qaeda base for attacks on the U.S.
Yemen reportedly trained and equipped the so-called “underwear bomber” – a Nigerian who hid explosives in his underwear and attempted to ignite them while a passenger on a U.S. airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. In another attempt, it is believed that Yemen was the source of explosives in courier packages bound for Jewish centers in the U.S.
In addition, the American-born firebrand imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, is believed to be hiding somewhere in Yemen while he recruits volunteers for al Qaeda.
The Obama administration’s response to the pro-democracy movement in Yemen has been to urge Saleh to make democratic changes. Saleh has said recently that he would not run for reelection in 2013. A former military officer, he has served as president since 1990. He has promised not to run for reelection in the past.
But many international observers doubt Saleh’s sincerity regarding reforms. Just last week he pledged to devolve power and urged the opposition to support the plan. His offer of an “open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people” was seen as a major concession.
But the opposition viewed Saleh’s pledge to devolve power to parliament as too late, and rejected it.
Yemen is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the Arab World, with a formal 65% employment rate, dwindling natural resources, a young population and increasing population growth. Yemen has very small oil reserves. Its economy depends heavily on the oil it produces, and its government receives the vast majority of its revenue from oil taxes. But Yemen's oil reserves are expected to be depleted by 2017, possibly bringing on economic collapse.
Rampant corruption is a prime obstacle to development in the country, limiting local reinvestments and driving away regional and international capital. The government has recently taken some measures to stamp out corruption, but efforts have been only partly successful. Foreign investments remain largely concentrated around the nation's hydrocarbon industry.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union and China provided large-scale assistance. For example, China is involved with the expansion of the Sana'a International Airport. In the south, pre-independence economic activity was overwhelmingly concentrated in the port city of Aden. The seaborne transit trade, which the port relied upon, collapsed with the closure of the Suez Canal and Britain's withdrawal from Aden in 1967.
Steve Clemons, editor of The Washington Note, says, “Despite the Obama administration's strange non-denial denial regarding military activities inside Yemen in which passions are running strongly inside Yemen against the US, the US is working with the Yemeni government in trying to identify and attack al Qaeda operations. Some are arguing that a quid pro quo is developing in which the administration is now engaged in a covert war against Houthi rebels, which the US has refused to identify as a terrorist group, in partial exchange for more kinetic action from the Yemen government against al Qaeda operations.”
Clemons adds, “The Obama administration has to step back at some point and ask itself what the dangers and downsides are of an ever-widening military span of operations. Some neocons in addition to Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) are now pointing to Yemen as ‘threat next’ and agitating for a much more aggressive American presence there.
Lieberman and others of like mind have not yet explained what a more aggressive U.S. presence in Yemen would look like and how it would square with the current wave of enthusiasm for representative governments and more self-determination throughout the MENA region.