The Yemeni government’s increasingly heavy-handed response to the threat posed by al-Qa’ida puts the country at risk of being locked in a downward spiral on human rights, say concerned observers.
In its latest briefing paper on Yemen, published ahead of an international high level meeting in London on Wednesday 27 January 2009, Amnesty International highlights an increase in human rights violations against those who criticise or oppose the government.
"The fear is that international demands for a crackdown on suspected supporters of al-Qa’ida will be interpreted by the government as a green light to crush all opposition with no consideration for human rights," said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme.
The government appears to have further intensified its new sweep against al-Qa’ida suspects following reports that a Nigerian national, alleged to have tried to blow up a plane over Detroit last December, had received training in Yemen.
Security forces claim to have captured and killed a number of leaders and activists of the group. Family members of such suspects have also been killed by government forces.
Attacks by al-Qa’ida, and groups apparently linked to it, have occurred sporadically throughout the last decade.
But most human rights abuses have taken place during conflict between government forces and armed rebels from the Zaidi Shi’a minority in the north and a strengthening, largely peaceful separatist movement in the south, both reportedly unconnected to al-Qa’ida.
"The government has resorted to increasingly repressive methods to counter this opposition, including waves of arrests, incommunicado detention and unlawful killings," said Malcolm Smart.
"Counter-terrorism is no excuse to sideline human rights. Whilst the government has a duty to protect people and hold to account those engaged in terrorism, it must abide by its obligations under international law."
In Sa’da, in the north of the country, the long running conflict between government forces and the Huthis, armed fighters belonging to the Zaidi Shi’a minority, resumed with new intensity last August and has been marked by serious abuses on both sides.
Both sides are alleged to have killed civilians and according to the UN’s refugee agency, so far more than the 200,000 people have been forcibly displaced.
The government has sealed off the area, preventing independent reporting of the conflict, and aid agencies have faced continuing problems as they seek humanitarian access to those at risk
Civilians have also been put at risk, and some may have been killed, by Saudi Arabian security forces that have carried out attacks against rebels in Yemen’s northern border region. These attacks lacked any safeguards for the protection of civilians.
In Aden and other cities and towns in the south, the government has faced growing protests from local people over its failure to address discrimination.
The government’s response to these protests has been heavy-handed, with unarmed demonstrators being shot in the streets and those leading local demands arrested and detained. Since the protests began in 2007, the security forces have arrested and detained, in many cases arbitrarily, thousands of demonstrators and bystanders.
Independent media in Yemen have also come under sustained attack in connection with the unrest in the south of the country. The authorities have stormed newspaper offices, blocked distribution of newspapers and arrested journalists critical of the government.