Demonstration against Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa (photo: dapd)
Interview with the Yemeni Minister Huria Mashhour

''The Immunity Law Is an Offence against Everything''

In Yemen, it is predominantly the younger generation protesting against the immunity law that guarantees dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh full legal protection for the entire duration of his 33 years in office. Charlotte Wiedemann spoke to Yemen's Minister for Human Rights, Huria Mashhour, in Sanaa

On 25 February, the former vice-president of Yemen, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was sworn in as president of the country, thus succeeding Ali Abdullah Saleh. In accordance with an internationally agreed deal, which was negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and received the support of the US and the EU, Saleh was rewarded for agreeing to step down with a comprehensive amnesty package. The politicians that stood by and supported him during his 33-year rule have been given a slightly limited amnesty for "politically motivated" acts. The immunity law was approved by established opposition parties in the parliament, parties that used to be in alliance with Saleh. Together with his party, they now form a "government of reconciliation" that does not enjoy the trust of the people. The driving force behind the change – i.e. the young people's revolution – is not involved; nor are the rebel movements in southern Yemen or among the Shias in the North.

The amnesty granted to Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been greeted with serious criticism from human rights activists outside Yemen. How can you, as the Yemeni Minister for Human Rights, support the law that introduced this amnesty?

Huria Mashhour: I voted against it in the cabinet! I didn't even go to the session of parliament where the legislation was initiated. The prime minister cried as he presented the bill. This whole situation is incredibly painful.

Huria Mashhour (photo: Charlotte Wiedemann)
"I am a minister who came from the streets. I want to stay in touch with the revolution; I want to represent its concerns," says Huria Mashhour

​​The immunity law is an offence against everything: against our constitution, against the human rights agreements that Yemen has signed and against Sharia too (according to Islamic law, only the victim can forgive the perpetrator – ed.). In every way, this law is inacceptable; it is the worst conceivable solution.

Yet opposition parties supported the bill in parliament. Why?

Mashhour: Our country seemingly had no choice. We were put under pressure by the international and regional communities.

What exact crimes from Saleh's 33-year rule are covered by this immunity law?

Mashhour: All of them, unfortunately! Worst of all are the crimes dating from the revolution in 2011; they were committed in full view of the world; even the international community saw what was happening. No one will ever be able to forget the massacre on the "Friday of Dignity", 18 March 2011, when 57 people were shot dead after Friday prayers, all on one day. Saleh must have seen everything; he was flying over the Friday prayers in a helicopter.

It is said that there were about 1,100 unarmed civilian victims during the months of the revolution. Can you confirm this figure?

Mashhour: There are still no confirmed numbers. There could be up to 2,000 civilian victims. Many Yemenis lost their sons, brothers or sisters. None of them can accept the amnesty law.

Many people fear that an era of individual revenge might now begin. How can reconciliation come about in Yemen?

Mashhour: The victims must be given compensation; not only financial compensation, but psychological too. They must be honoured. The wounded and crippled must be given free medical care. It is simply unbearable that Saleh is receiving the best medical treatment in the USA, while many of his victims don't even have the bare necessities.

Ali Abdullah Saleh (photo: epa)
After Saleh agreed to step down last November, Yemeni state television announced that he would be granted a general amnesty. The dictator, who had already been in power for over three decades, managed to maintain his grip on power for eleven months, despite the mass protests that had been organised against him since January 2011

​​We must also find out where people are still being illegally detained. We have to bring home all those who fled. All of those who lost their job for no good reason, must be given employment again.

Those are big pledges ...

Mashhour: Of course it will be difficult to do something for all victims. It will take a long time. But we have to start now. The first step will be to debate a law for transitional justice with the public. We need an investigation commission that will listen to the victims and the relatives of the dead and will register the crimes. This openness could lead to reconciliation, so that the bloodshed stops. At least, that is what I hope.

Who would be part of this investigation commission?

Mashhour: It would have to be independent. However, it is the government that has to take the initiative. There have already been some initial preparatory meetings, but we have to wait and see what the legal basis is.

The commission would investigate crimes, but from what period of Yemen's history?

Mashhour: I think starting in 1994 with the civil war against South Yemen. Some feel that only the year of the revolution should be investigated; others, Saleh's entire time in office. But there were two Yemens in those days, so it makes sense to start after reunification.

People in civil society are discussing how Saleh could be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) despite the immunity law. What is your opinion on this?

Mashhour: There is a lot of pressure from civil society for Yemen to become a party to the ICC statute as quickly as possible. But this parliament – whose term is already long over – still has a pro-Saleh majority, and the new parliament will only be elected in about two years.

Anti-Saleh demonstration in Sanaa (photo: dpa)
Resistance unbroken: more than anyone else, the young people who have been leading the protests against Saleh for over a year reject the immunity law that was negotiated by established opposition parties and the ruling General People's Congress

​​Nevertheless, the victims and their relatives should start trying to call on the International Criminal Court.

Would you support that? Despite the immunity law?

Mashhour: I support it wholeheartedly. In legal terms, it is a grey area.

Some people consider the amnesty package for Saleh to be a model for Syria, a model that could make it easier for Bashar al-Assad to step down. Is the Yemen solution a model?

Mashhour: No, it is certainly not a model. There is a massacre in Syria every day. Given that that is the case, how could the Syrians be in favour of amnesty?

You supported the revolution and were considered credible. But can a minister be a revolutionary?

Mashhour: I am a minister who came from the streets. I want to stay in touch with the revolution; I want to represent its concerns. Of course I still go to "Change Square" in Sanaa. Some ministers are afraid to go there; someone threw a shoe at one of them. I am not afraid; I was there yesterday.

Interview: Charlotte Wiedemann

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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