Yemen Spirals Toward Disintegration
As war renews in Yemen’s North and protests turn to riots in the South, terror attacks have hit the capital, and the opposition is boycotting upcoming elections. Civil liberties are under attack and traditionalism growing as the central government turns to hard liners for support and the population’s basic needs go unmet.
Despite a recent $1.4 million donation from the UK, the World Food Programme is facing an urgent shortage of funds to feed the 77,000 civilians displaced by the war in north Yemen. Several thousand have been killed in the war that began in 2004 and thousands of homes, mosques, and businesses have been destroyed by government shelling. A cease-fire agreement inked in June 2007 failed to stop the fighting and was renegotiated in January. Qatari mediators withdrew this week as both the Yemeni military and the northern Zaidi Shiite rebels refuse to abandon their positions as required. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 200 families arrived in Sa’ada City over the last week because of renewed fighting.
Large protests continue in southern Yemen and have become more frequent and heated. About 200 people are detained without charge in connection with the week-long riots in early April. The protests began last year as demands for equal rights and morphed into calls for southern secession from the state that unified in 1990. Twenty demonstrators have been killed since August. Flags of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen are openly flown at the protests, unthinkable a year ago. Six university students were arrested on Monday. The regime accuses both the domestic opposition and expatriate Yemenis of instigating the protests that currently focus on the release of political prisoners.
A new prohibition against demonstrations is an undeclared state of emergency, the opposition charged. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) is an opposition coalition of the Islamic Reform party known as Islah, the Yemeni Socialist Party, and some smaller parties. The JMP announced it will boycott gubernatorial elections in May, calling them a facade of democracy. Governors will be elected by local councils that are dominated by President Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). Parliamentary elections are slated for 2009. The opposition JMP is rejecting a draft law designating that the Supreme Electoral Commission will be composed of judges. The judiciary in Yemen is highly subject to executive influence. This stalemate may result in an opposition boycott of the parliamentary elections as well.
Three explosive devices were detonated near the exterior wall of the main police center in the eastern province of Hadramout late Tuesday evening. No one was wounded. It is the 10th incident of a small attack on government targets — police stations, government buildings, and checkpoints — outside the capital since mid-March. Six soldiers were killed in four of the attacks, many of which took place at night. Both the US and UN withdrew nonessential personnel in the last weeks after a mortar attack targeting the US embassy killed one Yemeni policeman in March. In April a western residential compound was subject to mortar fire. No one was injured. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility in an Internet posting for the mortar attacks and an earlier attack on a checkpoint in Hadramout.
The Yemeni regime announced this week that it arrested a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Mohammed Yaqout, in connection with the attack on the US embassy. Senior al Qaeda terrorist Abduallah al Reimi was reportedly arrested on April 7, but it was later found to be a case of mistaken identity. Reimi is wanted in connection with the 2003 al Qaeda attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that killed 17 and wounded 120.
US-Yemeni relations strained
FBI Director Robert Mueller visited Yemen on April 10 to discuss counterterror cooperation between the US and Yemen. Mueller repeated the US request for the extradition of Jamal al Badawi, convicted in the attack on the USS Cole, who escaped jail twice and surrendered in October 2007 to Yemeni officials. Badawi was later reported by local media to be living at home, although government officials claimed he was only visiting and is currently incarcerated. Seventeen US sailors were killed and 49 wounded in the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 in the port of Aden. After Mueller’s visit, a planned trip to the US by Yemen’s foreign minister Abu Bakr al Qirby was abruptly postponed. Badawi is one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, as is Yemeni-American Jaber Elbaneh.
Yemen also refuses to extradite Elbaneh to the US, citing a constitutional prohibition. Elbaneh attended the al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan along with six of his friends from Lackawanna, New York. The Lackawanna Six all pleaded guilty to terror related charges after their return to the US. Elbaneh never returned to the US and escaped Yemeni jail in February 2006 along with Badawi and 21 al Qaeda operatives. Elbaneh surrendered May 2007. In November 2007 Elbaneh was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail for a terror attack. Elbaneh is free on bail and attended two appeal hearings this month. Elbaneh claimed to the court that he reached an agreement directly with Yemeni president Saleh and the matter is finished.
Civil liberties diminished
The trial of prominent activist and journalist Abdulkairm al Khaiwani continues to infuriate Yemeni civil society, fellow journalists, and rights organizations. Al Khaiwani is charged with terrorism and faces the death penalty for possessing information and photographs of the war in Sa’ada. (The Yemeni government calls the Sa’ada rebels “terrorists” although the war is a domestic rebellion and the rebels do not target civilians.) After a lengthy trial, a verdict is expected in May.
A leading independent weekly al Wasat was abruptly closed in April. In a statement, the paper’s staff noted, “While the country is facing a total collapse, the regime is sparing no chance to shutdown all means of expression and clamp on all free voices in the country.” Since the outbreak of the Sa’ada war in 2004, and again with the growing protests in southern Yemen, the Yemeni government increasingly restricted and targeted the media and free expression. A slew of physical and judicial attacks on journalists and newspapers occurred with regularity. The government also blocked opposition and independent news Web sites and blogs. The Internet news aggregator YemenPortal.net changed domain names several times and devised several tactics to circumvent the censorship including an RSS feed and a downloadable Firefox extension.
In April, the GPC-dominated Parliament refused to vote on a proposed bill outlawing female genital mutilation and another prohibiting the marriage of girls under 15. Underage marriage is common in Yemen with half of all women married before their 18th birthday and many bearing a child shortly after their first menstrual period. Population growth is among the highest in the region, straining the economy. Eight-year-old Nojoud Muhammed Nasser went to court last week requesting a divorce from her 30-year-old husband who forced her to have sex with him when she preferred to play in the yard, she said. After an anonymous donor provided funds to repay her dowry, the marriage was dissolved. The regime is increasingly relying on the support of religious hardliners in response to pressures from northern Shiite rebels, southern Socialists, and civil activists across the country. The government deploys takfiri terminology in state mosques and the official media, excommunicating political rivals and according to some, legitimizing their deaths.
The Yemeni government is in part a criminalized regime, with drug and weapons smuggling and child trafficking accomplished with the coordination of people affiliated with the administration. The government is highly corrupt, with the proceeds of oil revenues, donor grants, and loans subject to elite capture. The regime does make public reform efforts in response to domestic and international pressure, but these are often superficial and accompanied by an equal amount of regression in practice. Rising food prices have erased years of small gains against poverty, and 46 percent of Yemenis now live on under $2.00 a day. Public services including water, education, electricity, security, and medical facilities are largely unavailable in rural Yemen, where 70 percent of the population resides, strengthening public reliance on tribal affiliation for survival.