Yemen Legislators Approve Immunity for the President
By LAURA KASINOF
Published: January 21, 2012
Yemen’s Parliament approved immunity on Saturday to free President Ali Abdullah Saleh from prosecution, following through on a requirement in a deal for him to give up power. The lawmakers extended the legislation to grant immunity for politically motivated crimes committed by all officials working under Mr. Saleh, according to the state-run Saba news agency.
Mohammed Hamoud/Associated Press
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The agreement, though internationally endorsed and struck between Mr. Saleh and opposition leaders in November, remained controversial with critics who say he should be punished for acts during his 33 years as president, including what antigovernment protesters and Human Rights Watch say was the killing of hundreds of demonstrators by his security forces.
Mr. Saleh had already handed over some authority to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, whom, according to Saba, the Parliament nominated on Saturday as the consensus candidate for an early presidential election, scheduled for Feb. 21. The move had been expected, and thus far, Mr. Hadi was the only official candidate. Yemeni officials recently expressed concern that elections could be postponed because of the chaotic state of the country.
The upheaval was Mr. Saleh’s explanation two weeks ago for saying he would remain in Yemen rather than go to the United States for medical treatment. Calming that was a reason cited Dec. 24 when he announced that he would make the trip.
Yemeni officials now say he will soon be traveling to the United States but plans to stop first in Oman.
He will leave “in the coming days,” one official said. A high-ranking official close to the president confirmed that Mr. Saleh would return to Yemen after his treatment. Neither would say why Mr. Saleh would be stopping in Oman; they both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the news media.
Mr. Saleh was severely injured in June, when a bomb was planted inside his palace. The Obama administration has granted him permission to travel to the United States for surgery. According to Saba, the immunity law cannot be canceled or appealed. However, Mr. Saleh and his government can still be prosecuted outside Yemen, by the International Criminal Court, for instance.
Parliament’s extension of immunity to all officials for politically motivated crimes covers Mr. Saleh’s son and nephews, who control important divisions of the armed forces that have been responsible for the killing of unarmed protesters. However, it was unclear whether the immunity would apply to military leaders who defected to the opposition, like Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, whom government officials blame for being behind the palace bombing.
When Mr. Saleh agreed in November to leave power, many doubted that he would follow through. Even if he does leave office, Mr. Saleh has many family members and loyalists still in influential positions in the government and armed forces through whom, analysts say, he would still be able to wield influence.
At least 270 protesters and bystanders died over the past year in attacks by security forces and pro-government gangs, according to Human Rights Watch. Dozens more civilians were killed, the organization says, in what appeared to have been indiscriminate attacks on civilian neighborhoods by government forces during times of conflict with armed opposition groups.
“This law sends the disgraceful message that there is no consequence for killing those who express dissent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Yemeni government should be investigating senior officials linked to serious crimes, not letting them get away with murder.”
While Alaa Jarban, a prominent youth activist who said he saw protesters killed last spring, called the immunity law “a slap on the face of human rights, and all values of justice,” he expressed some optimism that Mr. Saleh could be tried internationally. But, he said, “We all have to realize that if this law will prevent justice, people may have to take their justice by themselves, which is very dangerous in a country that has millions of weapons.”