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."