Friday, January 20, 2012

Yemeni Nobel winner: Ban Saleh's men from power

By Tom Finn

Fri Jan 20, 2012

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman has said President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his inner circle must be barred from power for good if the country is to have any chance of restoring stability.

In an interview after she returned to her country late on Thursday, Karman said the immunity Yemen's interim government was set to grant Saleh and his men to help ease him out of office should be accompanied by a ban on them holding official positions.

"Saleh and his family may have been spared from prosecution but they have to be removed from positions of power," said Karman, who met supporters bearing flowers and hand-drawn portraits of her in the Yemeni capital.

"If there is to be any chance of successful transition in Yemen these men must leave politics altogether."

Under the terms of a transition pact drawn up by Yemen's richer Gulf Arab neighbors with U.S. and U.N. backing, Saleh is to step down and a vote to pick his successor held next month. His deputy, the acting leader, is the sole candidate of note.

A central element of that deal - which aims at ending a year of protests demanding Saleh's ousting that have been punctuated by fighting between his forces and those of a rebel general and tribal chieftains - is immunity from prosecution.

Yemen's parliament is due to debate the draft law on Saturday, a move denounced by protesters who demand he face trial for the killings of their counterparts during the uprising and described by Human Rights Watch as a "license to kill."

"There can be no transition in Yemen without justice. In order for things to move forward the rulers must own up and apologize for the crimes they have committed," said Karman.

Karman, a mother of three and a prominent member of Islamist opposition party Islah was a key figure in the early days of the uprising against Saleh last January.

She returned home to scenes of jubilation on Thursday after a three-month tour of the world trying to garner international support and attention from pro-democracy enthusiasts.


Karman was greeted by thousands of protesters as she marched into Change Square flanked by a group of women wearing black veils, and urged her audience to escalate the protests.

A key task of the interim government - split between Saleh loyalists and opposition parties - is to oversee demilitarization of Yemen's cities, where pro-Saleh forces including ones led by his son and nephew have fought foes.

Restructuring of the military is supposed to follow the demilitarization but the capital remains heavily armed, despite the removal of some makeshift checkpoints and a return of some army units to their barracks.

Plain-clothes gunmen could be seen huddling on street corners on Thursday and soldiers loyal to General Ali Mohsen - a Saleh ally who turned on him as protests escalated -still control large chunks of the north of the capital where the protest encampment is located.

Gunmen loyal to tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar also sealed off the main ring road, causing gridlock. They said they had received orders from their leader to clear the way for his arrival.

Karman said the military standoff threatened the election, set for February 21.

"As long as the armed forces remain divided and on the streets of the capital I don't think it is safe or advisable for elections to take place," she said.

"Neither Vice President (Abd-Rabbu Mansour) Hadi nor anyone else will succeed in ruling and implementing real reforms if they do not preside over a unified and obedient army. If this doesn't happen the next president will be nothing but a pawn of the old regime," she said.

"Our job, as the youth, is to ensure the transition succeeds in Yemen, but under our conditions," she said. "We will remain in the streets, putting pressure on the political parties, until we feel that real change has been achieved."

Officials: U.S. seeks new home for Yemen's Saleh

January 20, 2012 (AP)

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is engaged in an intensive effort with Yemen's embattled strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to find him a new home, preferably not in the United States, so that his violence-wracked Arabian homeland can proceed with a transition to democracy, U.S. officials say.

President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, is leading the diplomacy, which appears to have gained steam this week when Saleh sought out U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein in the capital, Sanaa, to discuss where he could go. The meeting came shortly after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called out Saleh for not living up to his commitments to leave Yemen and allow elections ending his 34-year dictatorship, the officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.

But Saleh has few options, leaving the administration in a bind as it tries to find a nation willing to host a wily leader accused of committing gross human rights violations over a year of internal conflict. The 69-year-old leader may have transformed himself from a firm Arab ally of Saddam Hussein into a vital counterterrorism ally of the United States, but even Washington doesn't want to be the one forced to provide him a new home.

The administration's unwillingness in part reflects the shifting U.S. foreign policy calculus prompted by the Arab Spring. Political asylum for Saleh in the United States, or the appearance of preferential treatment from an administration that has championed peaceful and democratic change, would be highly unpopular with Yemeni political groups likely to take part in future governments. It also could anger people across the Arab world fighting to oust corrupt and authoritarian rulers.

Despite agreeing last year to transfer power to his vice president ahead of planned February presidential elections, Saleh is continuing to wield power behind the scenes and frustrate the efforts of Yemen's would-be reformers. Talk from Saleh allies about possibly postponing next month's vote has only further enraged Yemen's opposition. Meanwhile, al Qaeda has taken advantage of the political instability to enlarge its foothold in the country.

Al Qaeda's advance, in particular, has Washington on alert. Brennan and other officials are looking for ways to remove Saleh from Yemen as soon as possible so Yemen's political elites can get back to the business of fighting terrorists instead of each other. Earlier this week al Qaeda's Yemen-based branch seized the town of Radaa, an outpost 100 miles south of the capital and a key gateway to the regional center of Zinjibar, which has been under the terror group's control since last spring.

Without an end to the power vacuum in Yemen, officials fear al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will be able to raise funds, win recruits and increase the possibility of another international terrorist attack. The group is blamed for trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009 and cargo planes bound for the United States a year later.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing sensitive diplomacy, U.S. officials said Saleh has resubmitted a visa application to enter the United States and that the administration is actively considering his request. Fearful of appearing to harbor an autocrat with blood on his hands, the U.S. has withheld approval for a visa since December when Saleh asked to visit the U.S. to get medical treatment for injuries he sustained in a June assassination attempt.

Officials had demanded assurances that Saleh wouldn't remain in the country, but acknowledge now that if they let him into the United States it would be to stay. They said no final decision has been made.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates already have rejected Saleh, officials said. They said other possibilities are still out there, but if no country steps forward the United States might be forced to choose between Yemen's future stability and America's own popularity in the Middle East. In that case, the administration likely would let Saleh in, administration officials said.

Demonstrators began protesting against Saleh and calling for his ouster in February. The Yemeni government responded with a bloody crackdown, leaving hundreds of protesters dead and sparking wider violence in the capital with rival militia.

International pressure has mounted for months for Saleh to step aside. A June rocket attack on his compound left him badly burned and wounded, and led Saleh to seek medical treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia for three months. American officials had hoped he would remain there, but the Yemeni leader returned and violence worsened.

In November, Saleh agreed to a Saudi-backed deal to hand power to his vice president and commit to stepping down completely in exchange for immunity. The deal further angered Saleh's opponents, who demanded he be tried for his attacks on protesters. While he has transferred authority, in principle, to his vice president, he has continued to pull strings in Yemen's government through loyalists and relatives still in positions of power. Many fear he'll continue to rule in practice if he remains in Yemen.

"The instability in Yemen is of great concern, first and foremost to the Yemeni people, but also to the region and to the world," Clinton told reporters this week during a trip to the Ivory Coast.

Saleh has made "agreements with respect to the way forward that have not been fulfilled," she said. "We regret that the president has thus far failed to comply with his own commitments to leave the country, to permit elections to go forward that give the people a chance to be heard and be represented."

Even before Yemen's uprising began, it already was the poorest country in the Arab world, with a weak central government, deep tribal divisions and several separate conflicts.

Yemen scraps amnesty for Saleh's aides

January 20, 2012

SANAA — (AFP)-The Yemeni government has tweaked a contested bill that would have granted legal immunity to aides of President Ali Abdullah Saleh implicated in criminal affairs, a government source said on Friday.

The new version "grants complete immunity to president Saleh" but his assistants will only benefit from "political immunity" and could eventually be held accountable for criminal or terrorist acts, the same source told AFP.

The amended bill, adopted by the government on Thursday during an extraordinary meeting, also provides for the ratification of "laws on national reconciliation and transitional justice."

The government is to submit the bill to parliament on Saturday.

The original version, submitted on January 8, would have granted amnesty against prosecution to Saleh and the aides "who worked with him in all government, civil and military departments during the years of his rule."

In November, Saleh signed a Gulf-brokered deal to end the political crisis in the impoverished country, under which he handed authority to Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi and the opposition formed a national unity government.

Saleh serves now as an honorary president until polls are held in February to elect Mansur, the sole candidate, as his interim successor for two years.

A bloody crackdown on anti-Saleh demonstrations since January 2011 has claimed hundreds of lives.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said earlier this month that anyone who had committed abuses during the mass protests in Yemen must not be allowed to evade justice.

The UN commissioner urged decision-makers in Yemen to respect the prohibition in international law against amnesties for gross human rights violations.

A senior official in Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party, Sultan al-Barakani, said on Wednesday that February's vote would be held on time, amid rumours of a possible delay.

Meanwhile, parliament was scheduled to vote on the ammended bill, and on Mansur's presidential candidacy, on Monday, he added.

Separately, Saleh could travel abroad for medical treatment in the near future for injuries suffered in a bomb attack in Sanaa last June, another party source told AFP on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The GPC's political bureau has accepted, at Saleh's request, that he should travel abroad for treatment," the source said, without specifying the destination or date of his departure

Late last month, the veteran leader announced his intention to visit the United States "in order to create favourable conditions ... for the presidential election."

But a senior official declared shortly afterwards that the trip was cancelled following requests from his ruling party that he remain in Yemen until after the elections.