By AHMED AL-HAJ
March 23, 2012
SANAA, Yemen - Tens of thousands of protesters streamed into city centers across Yemen on Friday, demanding that their ex-president be stripped of immunity from prosecution and be put on trial for the deaths of demonstrators during the yearlong uprising.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years, stepped down last month in a U.S.-backed deal that gave him immunity to ease a transition from his rule. He was widely expected to leave the country after relinquishing power but has instead remained in Yemen.
The power-transfer deal also gave Saleh's party half of the seats in the new Cabinet. Critics say this has enabled him to interfere in the new government, working through loyalist Cabinet ministers as well as relatives and cronies still holding top military positions.
Street protests have continued even after Saleh stepped down, with demonstrators denouncing the ex-president's immunity and demanding he face trial. The government has said at least 2,000 people have been killed in a year of turmoil.
Some protesters on Friday carried posters showing Saleh with a noose around his neck and many chanted demanding retribution for those killed in Saleh's crackdown on protesters.
The continued street protests also reflect growing frustration among many Yemenis that their uprising, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts, has not achieved its goals even though a new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has been appointed in Saleh's place.
During the rally Friday in the capital Sanaa, activist Abdel-Hadi al-Azazi said Saleh was "still working on sabotaging the revolution."
The opposition also says the new government is unable to stop al-Qaida from gaining strength in the country's south. The terror network's branch in Yemen is seen by Washington as the most dangerous arm of al-Qaida, after its repeated attempts to carry out bombings on American soil. It only grew stronger during the past year's turmoil, when militants seized control of several towns in the south, including Zinjibar, a provincial capital.
On Sunday, an American teacher was killed in Taiz, Yemen's second most populous city. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the killing, raising fears that militants had infiltrated the central city.
Many Yemenis say Saleh's military waged only a halfhearted battle against al-Qaida. Washington hopes that will change under the new president. However, in Taiz, Hadi has only appointed a new police chief while leaving other officials, believed to be Saleh loyalists, in power.
Opposition lawmakers have also accused Saleh's loyalists of being behind recent power outages in the impoverished country. The ministry of electricity on Friday issued a statement blaming tribesmen in areas under control of Republican Guard forces, which are commanded by Saleh's son, for sabotaging power stations.
The weekly al-Madr reported on Thursday that the Republican Guard prevented fuel tankers from entering Sanaa in the past days and published photographs showing tankers parked by the roadside.
On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa issued a statement noting a "deterioration in political cooperation" in Yemen, and said that "it is not acceptable for any party to interfere in the implementation" of the deal that led to Saleh stepping down. The statement was seen as a veiled warning to Saleh.
A senior official of Saleh's General People's Congress party told The Associated Press on Friday that Saleh has denounced the U.S. statement.
"The president sees the statement as biased in favor of the new administration," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.