Obama’s strategic blunder in Yemen may shield Al Qaeda from prosecution
A law passed by Yemen’s cabinet on Sunday provides blanket immunity to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and all those who served in his governments over the last 33 years. One unintended consequence may be to also immunize those al Qaeda operatives on the payroll of the Yemeni military and security services.
The law grants immunity to Saleh “and whoever worked with him in all the state’s civil, military and security apparatus and organizations during the period of his rule.” The US has pushed for the transition plan since May despite broad public rejection of the immunity clause.
Yemeni military commanders including those now in the opposition are thought be complicit in a range of terror attacks, in addition to a long standing pattern of facilitating al Qaeda. Many al Qaeda operatives who draw a state salary would be covered under the immunity deal.
As one example, former Interior Minister Hussain Arab issued an official travel permit to Abdel Rahman al Nashiri in 2000, covering the period of the USS Cole attack that killed 17 US service members. Not only would the law absolve Mr. Arab of any complicity in the al Qaeda attack, it may also absolve Mr. al Nashiri.
If Al Nashiri, who is currently scheduled for trial at Guantanamo Bay, can produce witnesses to the involvement of Yemeni government officials in the attack, the Obama administration will be placed in the uncomfortable position of having lobbied for immunity for al Qaeda operatives who attacked a US war ship.
Similarly another Yemeni detainee with demonstrated foreknowledge of the 9/11 attack in New York had been employed by the Yemeni Political Security Organization prior to his capture in Egypt.
Yemeni officials have openly admitted to paying al Qaeda operatives’ salaries, purportedly as informants or to keep them out of trouble. Some of those currently partaking in the al Qaeda occupation of Abyan have been found with identity cards from the National Security.
Yemeni activists have long asserted that the state uses al Qaeda to attack its enemies and threaten the international community. Al Qaeda targeted and killed several foreign nationals in Yemen since 2007 including aid workers from Germany, Britain and South Korea as well as tourists from Spain, South Korea and Belgium. Yemeni officials have stated that al Qaeda is able to obtain intelligence from the security services as a matter of corruption rather than ideology.
The law, which will be presented for parliament’s approval within coming days, also covers those government officials guilty of massive corruption and embezzlement, the primary cause of Yemen’s staggering illiteracy and malnutrition rates. Members of the presidential family are thought to have deposited millions abroad.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland termed the immunity clause “useful” if it encourages “the strongman to leave the stage.”
Hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces, many by sniper shots to the head, since protests began in February 2011 demanding regime change. The killings continued unabated even after Saleh signed the power transfer deal in November.
Saleh supporters and security forces have attacked numerous journalists RSF reported since the departure plan was signed. Calling December 2011 “a particularly black month,” Reporters Without Borders firmly condemned the continuing violations and urged the international community to intercede.
Yemeni protesters largely reject the US backed transition plan because of the immunity clause. Protests calling for Saleh’s trial continue in nearly every governorate.
The UN Security Council endorsed the agreement, which was ironed out by UN envoy, Jamal Benomar. However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a statement last week asserting that the plan is illegal under international law,
“I have been closely following the events in Yemen, particularly the very contentious debate about an amnesty law to be presented to Parliament shortly,” the High Commissioner said.
“International law and the UN policy are clear on the matter: amnesties are not permissible if they prevent the prosecution of individuals who may be criminally responsible for international crimes including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and gross violations of human rights.”
Probable war crimes committed during the Saada war (2005-2010) include the “Scorched Earth” campaign during the sixth round of war, 2009-2010, when the Yemeni air force repeatedly bombed civilian villages, refugee camps and vital infrastructure. Saudi air support was responsible for bombing a Yemeni hospital, which Saudi authorities called “a mistake” in conversations to US officials, according to a Wikileaks document. The deliberate denial of humanitarian aid and a pattern of mass nationwide arrests are also thought to have contravened international law.
Another pattern of systematic abuse with regard to southern protesters since 2007 is well documented.
The transition plan, although forwarded by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is the brain child of President Obama’s counter-terror adviser, John Brennan and US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein.
The Wall Street Journal revealed last week that Mr. Brennan was “pissed” when it became apparent that President Saleh had orchestrated a hit on a political rival, via US drone, by feeding false intelligence to the US. The incident in May 2010 killed the deputy governor of Marib, Jabir Shabwani. Observers questioned Mr. Brennan’s gullibility considering Saleh’s quite long and extensive history of repeatedly duping the US on counter-terror issues.
Yemenis have held several protests calling for the expulsion of US Ambassador Feierstein after he disparaged a 170 mile march from Taiz to Sana’a, held to underscore public rejection of the amnesty deal. Ambassador Feierstein said the marchers were trying to provoke chaos and thus not inherently peaceful. When state forces killed 11 marchers later in the day, Yemenis charged that the US had given the Saleh regime the green light to murder as well as provided the amnesty afterward.
Over several months, US diplomats have pushed hard for the immunity deal as a way to ease Saleh out of office; however Saleh has outplayed the US at every turn. The aged dictator shows no real intention of giving up power and continues to operate on the political scene through proxies in the unity government.