Yemen: Three years on no justice for Sana’a protest killings

Yemen’s authorities have manifestly failed to hold a thorough and independent investigation into the deaths of at least 50 peaceful demonstrators and bystanders killed in Sana’a during one of the bloodiest incidents of the 2011 uprising, said Amnesty International.

On the third anniversary of the “Friday of Dignity” killings, the organization is calling for the creation of an internationally assisted, independent commission of inquiry to investigate this incident and all other human rights violations committed during 2011.

“Three years have passed since the ‘Friday of Dignity’ killings and the Yemeni authorities have yet to carry out a credible investigation or deliver justice. Promises that an independent commission of inquiry would be set up by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi remain unfulfilled,” said Philip Luther, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“By dragging their feet over ensuring a full and impartial investigation into these deaths, Yemen’s authorities are sending a disturbing message that justice and accountability are not a priority for them.”

Amnesty International has been calling on the Yemeni authorities to ensure that any commission of inquiry set up to investigate the incident has the necessary expertise and resources (including from the international community when needed), the power to compel witnesses – including government officials – to attend and co-operate with the investigation and the capability to protect witnesses from intimidation.

Such a commission should also put forth concrete recommendations to Yemeni authorities on how to hold perpetrators accountable, provide adequate reparation to victims and their families and ensure security forces comply with international human rights standards.

On 18 March 2011, unidentified gunmen opened fire during a peaceful protest in Sana’a’s Change Square, killing at least 50 demonstrators and bystanders.

An investigation was opened shortly after the incident by the then Attorney General. However, two weeks later, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh replaced him after he voiced public concern that his attempts to look into allegations about the involvement of top officials were being blocked.

In July 2011, the case was brought before a Criminal Court in Sana’a, which later ordered the new Attorney General to investigate senior officials – such as the former President – who had not been charged, but are widely believed to be implicated. The Attorney General has refused to do so.

The prospects for justice through the current process are exacerbated by the fact that, in 2012, a law was passed granting immunity to the former President and all of those who worked under him during his rule. This was a clear breach of Yemen’s obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights violations.

“The immunity law is totally unacceptable and must be revoked immediately. Effectively it allows anyone guilty of human rights violations associated with the previous government to walk free,” said Philip Luther.

Despite the vast challenges it faces, Yemen has taken some positive steps in recent years. These include promoting the representation of women, youth and groups with particular grievances against the central Yemeni authorities, such as southerners, in a national dialogue which has produced recommendations that, if implemented, should improve the country’s human rights record.

There are also encouraging moves to restructure the army and security forces and improve oversight of their practices, as well as plans to create a national human rights institution.

“Yemen has begun to introduce some promising human rights reforms. But sustainable reform cannot be achieved without justice for victims and their families. If the government wishes to prove that it is serious about human rights, they must tackle entrenched impunity,” said Philip Luther.

“The best way to for the authorities to mark this anniversary would be to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the Friday of Dignity killings and other serious violations committed in 2011. This would demonstrate a long overdue commitment to ensure independent and impartial investigations into all previous serious violations and ensure full reparations for victims. Accountability is crucial for Yemen’s transition.”