Democracy Lab

You Can Run But You Can't Hide

Activists are preparing to charge Yemen's ex-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh with crimes against humanity -- despite a deal that guarantees him immunity at home.

On Jan. 28, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived in the United States to seek medical treatment for wounds received during his country's continuing civil strife. He left shortly after parliament passed a law last month granting him blanket immunity for any crimes committed during his 33 years in office. The law was part of a deal brokered by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to ease Saleh out of power.

Not so fast, say some human rights activists. They're planning to bring Saleh to justice in a foreign court, where Yemen's laws don't apply.

International criminal law doesn't apply to sitting heads of state, and for the moment Saleh is still president. But that is about to change. On Feb. 21, 2012, Yemenis go to the polls to elect a new leader - and at that point, says Letta Taylor of Human Rights Watch, "authorities in another country can prosecute those suspected of serious human rights crimes in Yemen."

Fourteen years ago the arrest of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London dramatically confirmed the principle of universal jurisdiction, already established in the wake of World War II. Today, with certain restrictions, any court around the world can issue arrest warrants for crimes against humanity, genocide, or war crimes. "Saleh may well be safe in Yemen for as long as he has immunity there," says British legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg. "But a former head of state has no immunity in a country that has not granted him special privileges. That's the message of the Pinochet case."

If Saleh is indicted, it's most likely to be for the use of live ammunition by security forces attempting to break up anti-government demonstrations. During the year-old uprising in Yemen, over 200 protestors have been killed and more than 1000 wounded, according to Amnesty International. The single worst incident occurred in March 2011, when security forces and government supporters opened fire on the protestors in the capital city of Sanaa, killing 52 people. In the flashpoint city of Taizz the death count includes 22 children, and international NGOs are reporting cases of medical facilities shelled. Protestors responded to the immunity deal by chanting "it is our duty... to execute the butcher." (In the Jan. 16 photo above, demontrastors are holding up a sign reading "no immunity.")

Nonetheless, the immunity law is unlikely to meet with serious challenge in Yemen. Saleh's notoriously powerful family still holds key positions of the government. With only one candidate (the current vice president) running in the presidential election, Yemen has a long way to go before it can veritably hold its own leaders to account.

Ibraham Qatabi, a Yemeni-American human rights activist who recently demonstrated with other Yemenis outside Saleh's New York City hotel, says that he and like-minded compatriots are "definitely intent on prosecuting Saleh," though he declines to provide details. "We're putting together a legal committee and gathering evidence. He must be prosecuted. If we don't set the terms right now, the corruption and the killings will just continue." Qatabi says that it's important to send the message that leaders should still be held accountable - even if their own countries won't do it.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the London-based Independent Yemen Group is working on the same initiative. Galal Maktari,  Director of Projects, says that they hope to recruit "prominent human rights activists and lawyers" to build up their case against Saleh. "We are trying to access information about direct cases through Yemenis who have a relative or who have lost someone."

The most likely venue for a case against Saleh is London, which has become a favored location for the exercise of universal jurisdiction. In 1999 a London court gave a life sentence to Belorussian Nazi collaborator Anthony Sawoniuk on charges of genocide, and a July 2005 trial ended with a 20-year jail sentence for Afghan warlord Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, who was found guilty of torture and hostage-taking. Arrest warrants have also been issued against former Bosnian President Ejup Ganic and ex-Israeli officials, amongst others.

Dina El Mamoun, who covers Yemen for Amnesty International, says that an investigation against President Saleh can be opened by law enforcement authorities or by an individual. "Whether a charge is made or not depends on whether there is sufficient admissible evidence," she says. "So far, no conclusive evidence has come to light because there has never been any credible investigation into Saleh's conduct. No criminal procedure has been followed."

But Sareta Ashraph, a British lawyer who was worked on cases involving conflicts in Libya, Gaza, and Sierra Leone, says that universal jurisdiction offers "a lower bar" for starting proceedings against Saleh. Ashraph notes that reports from groups such as Amnesty International, though lacking the rigor of full-fledged legal investigations, "would be enough to potentially contribute to the issuing of an arrest warrant."

Yemeni activists are determined to prevent Saleh from escaping justice. "No regime that is willing to openly kill its own citizens who are peacefully protesting can also be expected to investigate its own crimes," says Qatabi. "Saleh is in charge of the security forces and the army. He has the obligation and the responsibility to protect his own people -- this is enshrined in the Yemeni constitution. The abuse and the killings are documented. This is something that cannot be disputed."

In addition to universal jurisdiction, Letta Taylor of Human Rights Watch points out that there are two other paths toward possible prosecution: Either a Yemeni citizen could challenge the immunity deal in Yemeni courts, or Yemen's incoming government could acknowledge the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over crimes committed under Saleh's rule. Given that Saleh's family continues to dominate the Yemeni government, both options appear unlikely.

Maktari, of the London-based Yemeni group, is not deterred. He says that his organization's aim is to show the Yemeni officials that they are not immune. "The mere fact that we are working on this, [that we] have formed a legal committee, is already achieving something. We want the Yemeni officials looking over their shoulders."

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Waiting for Spring

If the Middle East is your yardstick, the countries of Central Asia ought to be on the verge of revolution. But don't hold your breath.

On the surface, Central Asia would appear to be ripe for a popular uprising modeled on the Arab Spring. The "stans" are home to repressive governments, high unemployment, inequality, and widespread corruption. Over a year has passed since the wave of protests began to spread across the Arab world. Yet there's been no comparable sign of popular discontent in this other Muslim-majority region.

On the contrary, Central Asia's regimes appear to be thriving. In January, Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan party won over 80 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections, and on February 12 Turkmenistan's incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov won a national poll with a resounding 97 percent. Even his opponents endorsed him. The point is not that these elections accurately reflected the popular will; far from it. Yet in neither country, despite the incumbent's blatant violations of election laws, did citizens challenge the results as they recently did in Russia.

Central Asia has some of the most repressive states in the world. Freedom House's "Freedom of the World" index rates Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, as "not free," while Kyrgyzstan barely squeaks into the "partly free" category. The region even has the dubious honor of having placed two presidents on Foreign Policy's 2010 list of the "Worst of the Worst" dictators. With the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan, which certainly boasts greater freedoms than its neighbors but also suffers from unacceptably high levels of instability and violence, the voices of ordinary Central Asians are rarely heard.

It did not have to be this way. Western intelligence during the Cold War always saw the region as poised for revolt, a potential dagger aimed at the heart of the "evil empire." During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA had copies of the Koran translated into Uzbek and smuggled across the border in the hopes of starting an anti-Soviet jihad among the USSR's Muslims.

Needless to say, history did not vindicate that plan. Instead, the most vocal opponents of Soviet rule appeared in the Baltic region, while the Central Asian republics lay low. In fact, in a critical referendum of the remaining Soviet republics in March 1991, over 90 percent of all five Central Asian countries voted to stay part of the Soviet Union rather than go their separate ways. They were eventually forced into independence when Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus failed to agree on forming a truncated union and the USSR fell apart.

Having done little to push back against the Communist regime, Central Asian societies had few means to shape the course of politics in their own new states.

Instead, the transition process was controlled -- some would say hijacked -- by Soviet Central Asia's political elites. Four of the five founding Central Asian presidents had been the Communist Party first secretaries of their respective republics. They had risen through ranks of the Party by being disciplined and loyal, not creative, compassionate, or rebellious. They already controlled the levers of power and vast networks of patronage, so it was not difficult for them to assume control of the new governments upon attaining independence. This process was delayed in Tajikistan, where the old guard was challenged in 1992 by rival elite factions, leading to a struggle for power and five years of civil war. The new president, a former collective farm chairman, was able to consolidate power only after the end of the war.

The new leaders had plenty of tools to keep democracy at bay. They inherited a sophisticated intelligence apparatus, with legions of citizens recruited to inform on their neighbors. Since private property was illegal in the Soviet Union, the state ran the economy and managed the republics' lucrative resources, including oil, gas, gold, and cotton. Having been handed such gifts, Central Asia's new leaders found no reason to allow political competition or privatize their economies more than absolutely necessary.

Kyrgyzstan was an exception to this rule. Its first president was a distinguished physicist and self-styled democrat who enthusiastically carried out political and economic reforms. Partly for this reason, Kyrgyzstan has experienced mass upheavals that forced two changes of government in the 2000s. As a result, many of the hallmarks of Central Asian authoritarianism do not apply there. (The photo above shows a Kyrgyz policeman on patrol in the city of Osh last summer.)

In the other four states, however, ordinary citizens faced huge obstacles in the push for democracy. Central Asia, which is still predominantly rural even today, was the poorest part of the Soviet Union. One of the few consistent patterns that have emerged from the study of democratic transitions is the importance of a middle class, a social force that developed quickly in the Baltic region and has grown fast in Russia in the last decade, but remains stunted in Central Asia. Religion was a potential source of civil society, but Islamic activists were repressed early on in Uzbekistan. Other governments later invoked the participation of (moderate) Islamists in the Tajik Civil War as a pretext to crack down on suspected Islamists at home. Consequently, there is no organized Islamic movement comparable to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood anywhere in Central Asia.

In Central Asia, then, as opposed to Egypt or Tunisia, it may appear as if the regimes are indestructible. But there's a rub: Even if a regime can build an impenetrable shield from society, it does not mean all will be smooth sailing for a tyrant. In fact, Central Asia's regimes face many challenges, but most of them come from within the upper echelons of power, not from the opposition.

To understand politics in Central Asia, it does not make sense to fixate on ordinary politics, such as parliamentary debates or elections, rigged or otherwise. Instead, we should turn our gaze toward the inner workings of the regimes -- the intrigue, backstabbing, and blackmail that counts as real politics in Central Asia. It is, of course, not straightforward to observe; it can be like watching "the fight of bulldogs under the carpet," to use Churchill's description of Soviet politics. But we can learn much from the episodes of political acrimony that make it into public view. Here is a glimpse:

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov regularly fires regional governors and publicly lambasts them for various transgressions, including poor economic performance, corruption, and lack of responsiveness to the people. Governors have been known to end up in prison.

For a more poignant example of high-level acrimony, take Kazakhstan. Rakhat Aliyev, once a major banking and media magnate, called Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev a "communist sultan" from exile in Austria, after being convicted in absentia of crimes including kidnapping and attempting a coup. Such an epithet would be a predictable reaction from a persecuted opponent of the president -- except for the fact that Aliyev was Nazarbayev's son-in-law. To punish Aliyev even though he could not reach him physically, the president forced his daughter to get a divorce, disinheriting him from the family fortune. As a Central Asian proverb says, "A person separated from the family will be eaten by wolves."

What is going on here? Are these presidents simply ferreting out corruption and criminality in their ranks? Are they acting as the benevolent tsar looking after the national interest? Perhaps, but consider the fact that the presidents are surrounded by billionaires, and are rumored to have stashed billions in Swiss bank accounts themselves. Criminality is in the eye of the beholder.

Or, more accurately, criminality is integral to the functioning of the system. It is no secret that in Central Asia many government jobs are for sale. People who can afford a lucrative post, whether operating a state agency or running a province, can expect to get a return on their investment. Rulers understand that their subordinates are greedy, and allow them to exploit their position as long as they also perform their basic duties, such as keeping order in the provinces or passing on revenues to the state budget. (This arrangement resembles a practice in pre-revolutionary France called tax farming.)

But a ruler cannot always trust his subordinates. One concern is that they might grow too close to the populations they serve, thus working for their constituents' interests instead of the government's. The ruler's first line of defense against this risk is to frequently rotate local officials. (Lest we think this practice is unfair, the United States, like other democracies, limits the terms of its diplomats' overseas tours for the same reason.) But a dictator may also fear that his underlings are growing so rich or powerful from their position that they can become a potential threat to his rule. Dictators may indeed face real threats, but they also tend to overreact by using heavy handed methods, alienating allies and creating new enemies in the process.

Thus, we see a picture of dictatorship that is far from the orderly, meticulous image dictators seek to project. Central Asia's leaders have distinguished themselves as expert managers of greed and graft, but because this system rests on informal agreements and depends on the personality of the ruler, it is also fragile. The episodes above hint at possible troubles, but the possibilities are more alarming when we consider historical examples of how apparent stability can suddenly give way to instability on a massive scale. What could cause such a breakdown in Central Asia?

While forecasting is difficult, there are two plausible risks on the horizon. One is if there is not enough loot to go around, and elites have to compete over fewer resources. This is not likely to happen any time soon in Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, where petroleum reserves are projected to last decades, and Chinese buyers are willing to pay top dollar. But it is a more serious concern in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which have struggled to regain their economic footing since the 2008 financial crisis.

More likely to cause a stir are presidential successions. Foremost on the list of soon-to-be-ex-presidents are Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, 71, and Karimov of Uzbekistan, 74, who have been in power since 1991. (Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan has been in power for 17 years but is only 60.) None has a known plan for succession.

Karimov has no sons but has two daughters, the eldest of which was described in a WikiLeaks cable as "the single most hated person in Uzbekistan." Nazarbayev has three daughters and no sons; his family problems are well known.

Given the lack of a reliable mechanism to transfer power, all bets are off when the leaders eventually pass on. For two decades, the informal rules have worked effectively to safeguard the interests of ruling elites. But these elites have no experience in dealing with major changes, so they may not be able to resolve their differences peacefully when the old man is no longer around to enforce the old rules.

If elite struggles spill out onto the streets in a Central Asian country, the consequences could mirror the darker side of the Arab Spring, as in Syria or Yemen. On the other hand, the elites might be able to work together to ensure a smooth transfer of power, as happened in Turkmenistan after President Niyazov's death in 2006.

In either case, democracy is not the most likely outcome. Sadly, Central Asia's Tahrir Square moment may still be a long way off.

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images