Tens of thousands of Yemenis demanded President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s execution in protests Sunday against a law giving him full immunity from prosecution over a deadly crackdown on dissent.
“It is our duty… to execute the butcher,” chanted angry protesters gathered in Sanaa’s Change Square, the epicentre of the democracy movement that has been calling for Saleh’s ouster since January last year.
Yemen’s parliament on Saturday adopted a law giving Saleh “complete” immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down under a Gulf-brokered transition deal.
The law also offers partial protection from legal action for Saleh’s aides, saying his lieutenants cannot be charged for “actions that were politically motivated and carried out in the exercise of their duties.”
The protesters carried banners calling on lawmakers to reverse their decision.
“To the lawmakers, we say there will be no immunity at the expense of the blood of our martyrs,” said one banner, referring to the hundreds of people killed in the government crackdown.
The demonstrators tried to march to the US embassy in Sanaa but were stopped by Yemeni security forces.
The final text of the immunity law specified the amnesty “does not apply to acts of terrorism,” though no further details were revealed as to what actions may fall within that category.
The transitional government of national unity, which is led by the parliamentary opposition, had submitted 11th-hour amendments on Friday reducing the scope of the amnesty offered to the president’s aides following a public outcry.
“We had 10,000 victims in northern Yemen over the past six wars. We cannot give up seeking justice,” Abdel Karim Jadban, an MP from Saada, the Zaidi Shiites’ stronghold in the country’s north, told AFP.
An on-off revolt in northern Yemen since 2004 between Shiites and the Sanaa government has cost several thousand lives and displaced more than 250,000 people. A ceasefire was declared in February 2010.
The UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has criticised the immunity law arguing it neglects the rights of “victims”.
Speaking to reporters before departing Yemen late Saturday, Benomar said that though “the law was amended… it does not live up to our expectations. The UN in principle stands against this type of blanket immunity.”
Benomar called on parliament to enact a “transitional justice and reconciliation” law that would allow victims to be heard and make claims for compensation.
Parliament also adopted a law approving Saleh’s longtime deputy, Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, as the consensus candidate in the election for Saleh’s successor, which is due to be held on February 21.
A senior official of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party, Sultan al-Barakani said this week that the veteran president, who remains in office on an honorary basis, would travel abroad.
“In the coming days, he will visit the sultanate of Oman and then Ethiopia before travelling to New York for treatment” for wounds he sustained in a bombing at the presidential palace last June, the GPC official told AFP.
“Once he has completed his treatment in New York, he will return to Yemen to continue leading the party.”
Diplomats in Sanaa said on Sunday that Saleh’s eldest son Ahmed — who commands the feared Republican Guard — “is already in Oman” to prepare for his father’s visit.
Ali Salem al-Baidh, a former vice-president and leader of the Socialist Party in Yemen, took refuge in neighbouring Oman after a secession attempt by the south was crushed in 1994.
He was forced to refrain from politics and from making any political statements during his stay in the sultanate.