Yemen’s Saleh Granted Pass for Suspected Crimes

Whether Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure will benefit Yemen is still an open question.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (Presidency of Yemen)
President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (Presidency of Yemen)

The process took weeks to debate and finalize but the Yemeni parliament has finally approved the Gulf Cooperation Council’s peace accord. The organization of Arab Gulf states tabled the plan last April in an attempt to slide President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his post after 33 years as the country’s top man.

In return for stepping down, Saleh has been granted a total reprieve for crimes that he allegedly perpetrated during his three decades in power, including crimes that were committed during the past eleven months of bloodshed against Yemeni demonstrators.

The accord, when first proposed by the GCC, was highly controversial. Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights commissioner, denounced the plan as a breach of international humanitarian law due to its immunity clause. Human Rights Watch issued a scathing critique of the agreement as “a license to kill” more protesters. 

Anti-government protesters, some of whom have lost loved ones to regime shelling and snipers, are understandably the most upset. Before parliament formally endorsed the power transfer plan, tens of thousands demonstrated in cities across Yemen to express their frustration with what they perceive as a bill that not only condones murder but protects the murderer from prosecution.

If there is any consolation to the protesters, it is the fact that parliament took their anger into consideration.

Originally, the GCC agreement provided full immunity to Saleh and all of his aides for all crimes that may have been committed during the past 33 years. This would have not only included the killing of innocent Yemenis in city streets but violence connected to all of the country’s regional conflicts, including the indiscriminate bombing campaign against Shia Houthi rebels in the north and a crackdown on separatists in the south. Monetary violations, such as shady real estate deals and outright corruption, would also have been barred from the courts.

Some of those stipulations are now gone. Saleh enjoys full immunity but his aides will no longer be protected from charges of corruption or crimes related to terrorism.

Although Saleh is not set to resign, the future for Yemen remains bleak at best. The president is reportedly scheduled to leave for Oman before flying to the United States for treatment on wounds that he received after a June assassination attempt at his palace. 

Washington will most likely ask him to depart after his medical tests are completed, rightly concerned that an extended or permanent stay would give Yemenis the impression that the United States are willfully harboring a war criminal. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already refused to take Saleh in which begs the question of where he will eventually end up.

Then there are questions relating to how much Yemen will actually change from a post-Saleh transition. His son, Ahmed, remains in control of Yemen’s most elite and well trained branch of the military. Loyalists are keeping their positions in the government which could help destabilize the country by allowing Saleh to manipulate Yemen’s politics behind the scenes.

In the end, ruling out of sight may not even be necessary for Saleh has already indicated that he plans to return to Yemen as an opposition candidate after his medical stay in the United States.

None of these concerns even begin to account for the country’s longer term problems, such as increased resentment in the south over what is seen as a “northern occupation” there. Al Qaeda’s freedom of movement is also a blaring problem with possible regional dimensions.

To expect Yemen’s unity government to solve all of these problems in a few months or even a few years would be a viewpoint in the realm of the imaginary. The international community will have to wait and see whether Saleh’s departure will really make any difference.