Freedom in the World - Yemen (2002)

Capital: Sanaa

Population: 18,000,000

Political Rights Score: 6 *
Civil Liberties Score: 6 *
Status: Not Free

Ratings Change

Yemen's political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 because of successful efforts by President Saleh to increase his powers and extend his presidential term.

Overview

On February 20, 2001, 73 percent of Yemenis voted in favor of a referendum to extend the term of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from five to seven years, to extend parliamentary terms from four to six years, and to create a 111-member, presidentially appointed council of advisors with legislative power. Critics denounced what they called a move by Saleh to consolidate his hold on power, and expressed fear that the new council will undermine Yemen's parliament.

The referendum coincided with Yemen's first local elections since unification 11 years ago. Saleh's ruling General People's Congress (GPC) party took 61 percent of about 7,000 municipal council seats, while the Islamist Islah Party won 23 percent, and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) split the remaining seats with independents and smaller parties. At least 40 people were killed in election-related violence, and voting was delayed in some areas because of ballot disputes. The opposition protested what it called irregularities and vote rigging.

Yemeni and U.S. law enforcement officials continued during 2001 to gather evidence against suspects in the suicide bombing that killed 17 U.S. sailors on the Cole, a naval destroyer, in the Port of Aden in October 2000. The investigation took on greater urgency in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States by suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network. Amid rumors that Yemen could soon be a target in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Yemeni officials showed eagerness to cooperate with the United States and arrested dozens of Islamists, including suspected followers of bin Laden. Officials from both countries believe that bin Laden was also behind the Cole attack.

After hundreds of years of rule by autocratic religious leaders, the northern Yemen Arab Republic came under military control in 1962. Field Marshall Saleh was elected president by a constituent assembly in 1978. The British controlled the southern People's Republic of Yemen from 1839 to 1967. Hardline Marxist nationals seized power in the southern capital of Aden following the British withdrawal. North and south were unified into the Republic of Yemen in 1990, with the GPC's Saleh as president and southern YSP leader Ali Salim al-Biedh as vice president.

In April 1993 parliamentary elections, Saleh and the GPC won the most seats and formed a coalition with Islah and the YSP. Parliament formally elected Saleh and al- Biedh president and vice president, respectively. However, al-Biedh boycotted the new government and called for demilitarization of the former north-south border, decentralization of authority, and investigation into dozens of preelection killings of YSP activists. The south attempted to secede in April 1994, sparking a 70-day civil war. Northern troops prevailed, and al-Biedh and other secessionist leaders fled the country.

Constitutional amendments in 1994 gave the chief executive broad powers and provided for direct presidential elections in 1999. Islah and the GPC formed a governing coalition in October 1994, and 13 opposition groups, led by the YSP, formed the Democratic Opposition Coalition in 1995. April 1997 elections to the 301-seat parliament were generally free and fair, though opposition members denounced the results as a government attempt to legitimize the "unfair" outcome of the civil war.

Bitterness prevails among many southerners who continue to regard unity as northern domination. Despite attempts at economic reform, the south remains largely undeveloped and poor after decades of Communist rule. Southern Yemenis are also dissatisfied with official corruption, cronyism, and restrictions on political and civic participation. The GPC dominates the government and parliament, limiting or barring representation by the YSP, the main party of former South Yemen. A minor oil producer, Yemen is one of the Arab world's poorest nations. Unemployment is estimated at around 35 percent, while some 30 percent of Yemenis live in poverty. Observers agree that Saleh's greatest challenge is the need for comprehensive political and economic reform to combat Yemen's vast social problems and the mistrust between north and south. With the help of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Saleh has pursued an economic restructuring plan since 1995. It has made progress on reducing inflation and budget expenditures, but still needs to reform the civil service, eliminate corruption, and encourage private investment.

One barrier to economic development is Yemen's precarious security situation. The central government's influence is limited; in governorates outside the larger cities, heavily armed tribal leaders resist central control. Violence is a problem, as illicit guns outnumber Yemenis by three to one. Tribal land disputes occasionally flare up into violent clashes; in October, 10 people died and 32 were injured in one such dispute in Marib. Military and police officers are reluctant to intervene. Disgruntled tribesmen frequently take foreign tourists or oil workers hostage in order to press the government to grant development projects or to release imprisoned fellow tribesmen. These hostages are generally released unharmed and report having been well treated by their captors.

Islamic militancy surfaces occasionally, and Yemen has gained a reputation as a conduit for terrorism. The country has been identified as a source and transit point for terrorists, weapons, and funding for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization. Authorities began hunting down suspected al-Qaeda members after September 11, but have had problems with sympathetic tribespeople sheltering suspects. In one operation in December, security forces raided a Marib village in which terrorists were believed to be hiding. A fight with tribesmen ensued, and 17 people were killed. Three senior al- Qaeda members reportedly escaped. The United States praised the effort.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The right of citizens to change their government is limited by the concentration of political power in the hands of a few leaders, particularly the president. The parliament is not an effective lawmaking body; it does little more than debate issues, and its power is limited by the president's authority to rule by decree. Presidential elections in 1999 were seen as "poor stage management," in the words of one YSP official. The major opposition candidate was barred by parliament from running, and President Saleh's only opponent was a little-known GPC member whose campaign was financed by the government. The YSP led a coalition of opposition groups urging Yemenis to boycott the polls.

Local elections in February 2001 were marred by violence and charges of vote rigging. About 20 percent of polling stations never officially announced final results because of disputes over ballot counting. The Yemeni Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation reported that enough irregularities occurred to cast doubt on the fairness of the vote. The YSP and four smaller parties demanded a new vote. Opposition groups denounced the approval, also in February, of measures to extend presidential and parliamentary terms and to allow Saleh to appoint a 111-member consultative council with legislative authority. Some observers noted that the term extension will allow Saleh to retire just as his son turns 40--the minimum age for presidential candidates in Yemen.

The judiciary is not independent. Judges are susceptible to bribery and governmental influence, and many are poorly trained. Judicial independence is further hampered by the government's frequent reluctance to carry out sentences. Authorities set up a special court in 1999 to handle cases of kidnapping, which was made a capital offense after the ill-fated kidnapping of 16 Western tourists by Islamic militants in late 1998. All courts are governed by Sharia (Islamic law), and there are no jury trials. The law lists 13 capital offenses, including some cases of adultery. Since 1999, the government has dismissed judges accused of corruption or incompetence, and has allowed the World Bank to implement programs to help train judges. These reforms will require time to produce results. Local tribal leaders adjudicate land disputes and criminal cases in areas under their authority.

Various branches of the security forces carry out arbitrary arrest and detention on political grounds, and regularly flout due process rights. In its 2001 report, Human Rights Watch asserted that Yemeni security forces continued to commit "abuses, including arbitrary arrest, torture, and killing of civilians with virtual impunity." The criminal code allows for a maximum of six months' detention without trial; at least six suspects held in the Cole attack were detained throughout 2001 without charge. In July, security officers in the city of Ibb detained more than 30 people, searched homes without warrants, and demolished the home of Abdallah Salih al-Maitami, an unsuccessful independent candidate in the local election. Maitami was also arrested and reportedly beaten by officials, according to Human Rights Watch. The government has failed to investigate hundreds of disappearances since the late 1960s in both north and south Yemen. In a December 2001 report on prisons, the Yemen Times detailed mistreatment of detainees, including poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, inadequate food, and torture. Mistreatment occurs in private prisons as well as in official facilities.

A press law requires that newspapers reapply annually for licenses and that they show continuing evidence of about $5,000 in operating capital. The press is allowed a certain degree of freedom to criticize government officials and policies, yet the government restricts this freedom through legal harassment, detention, and prosecution. In September, a Yemen Times journalist was arrested and held incommunicado after writing about the kidnapping of a German diplomat in July. Also in September, an Aden criminal court sentenced the editor of the weekly al-Haqiqah to three months in prison and fined him for falsely reporting the resignation of the governor of Aden. In November, authorities deported a French journalist who tried to interview relatives of Osama bin Laden. In April, the first issue of a monthly human rights publication was banned for allegedly violating the press law. In June, prosecutors implemented a 1997 sentence against the opposition weekly al-Shura for defamation and suspended the publication for six months. Broadcast media are government owned and present only government views--a significant limitation on access to information, given Yemen's 60 percent illiteracy rate.

Permits are required for public gatherings, which are monitored by government informers. A new law on associations came into effect in February 2001. The law gives the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs powers to supervise nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), stipulates a minimum of 41 members to establish an association, and requires ministry approval for foreign-funded activities. The independent Yemeni Human Rights Organization operates openly, and international human rights observers are allowed broad access. Members of the YSP face harassment and detention by authorities.

Islam is the state religion; about 75 percent of Yemenis belong to the Shafai order of Sunni Islam, and 25 percent to the Zaydi order of Shia Islam. Followers of other religions may worship freely, but the government forbids proselytizing by non-Muslims, conversions, and the construction of new places of worship without permits. Yemeni Jews, who number about 500, face traditional restrictions on places of residence and employment. In January, militant Islamists were suspected in the bombing of Christ Church, an Anglican church in Aden.

Women face substantial legal and traditional discrimination, and approximately 80 percent of Yemeni women are illiterate, compared with 35 percent of men. Women convicted of "moral offenses" are arbitrarily detained for indefinite periods under the penal code. In 1999, authorities reduced the minimum marriage age (15) for women, replacing it with the onset of puberty (age nine, according to conservatives). "Honor killings" occur in Yemen, although the number of such killings is difficult to determine because of the failure to report or investigate them. In April 2001, Wahiba Fare, a university professor, took over the human rights portfolio to become Yemen's first female cabinet minister.

Workers may form unions, but the government regularly places its own personnel in influential positions inside unions and syndicates. Foreign, agricultural, and domestic workers receive limited protection under labor laws. The Yemeni Confederation of Labor Unions is the sole labor federation. The right to bargain collectively and to strike is limited; collective agreements may be invalidated if judged to "damage the economic interests of the country," and permission to strike must be obtained from the union federation.


*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom. Click here for a full explanation of Freedom in the World methodology.