As pressure builds on the Obama administration to deny a diplomatic visa to ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the family of a sailor killed in the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole urged that Saleh be denied entry to the United States.
In a public plea, Gary and Deborah Swenchonis are calling on US officials to “do the right thing” in light of Saleh’s “ruthless behavior” toward both his own people and the sailors aboard the USS Cole when it was attacked.
“If Saleh was allowed to come here to America, it would be just another insult in a long line of insults to the murdered sailors, those wounded, and those sailors who fought so hard and so long to keep the Cole afloat, and to bring her back home. And not to mention all the other Americans who could never understand why our own government continued to befriend Saleh in light of how he helped the plotters of the Cole Attack in which 17 American sailors were murdered, and 39 more wounded.”
Their son Gary Swenchonis Jr. was a fireman aboard the USS Cole and among those US service members killed in October 2000 when al Qaeda operatives detonated a bomb alongside the warship as it was refueling in the Port of Aden.
The Swenchonis family notes that through several administrations, the US government has never held Saleh to account for his part in obstructing the USS Cole investigation, allowing the terrorists to repeatedly escape justice or in facilitating the attack itself.
Like other aggrieved parties including torture victims, the Swenchonis family vowed to use “every legal option at our disposal to make him stand trial in a civil court” should Saleh find refuge in the United States.
Saleh said last week that he intended to go into ”temporary exile” in the United States.
“I will go to the United States. Not for treatment, because I’m fine, but to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections,” he was reported as saying. The statement came hours after nine protesters were killed by Yemeni security forces. Other reports said the former president will seek treatment in the US for injuries sustained in a June bombing at the presidential palace.
The New York based Center for Constitutional Rights said yesterday that it is also considering filing a civil suit against Saleh for human rights abuses he committed since demonstrations demanding regime change began in February. Thousands were killed or wounded when Yemeni security forces, headed by Saleh’s relatives, opened fire on protesters.
The most recent fatalities came after thousands participated in “The Life March.” Protesters journeyed on foot 170 miles from the southern province of Taiz to the capital Sana’a to underscore public rejection of a US sponsored deal that grants Saleh immunity from prosecution in return for his resignation, tendered in November.
A third group considering legal action includes Yemeni Americans tortured while in Yemeni jail for political activity against the regime prior to the outbreak of protests.
The Swenchonis family noted that democracy minded Yemenis “cannot understand our government’s continued infatuation with Saleh of Yemen. The more our government continues to protect this murderer, his family, and his government, the more difficult it will be to gain these peoples’ trust. The Yemeni people have a right to make Saleh stand trial for all of his crimes. And we hope that Saleh will actually have to face the consequences of his actions towards them and his country.”
“We as citizens of this country do not believe that we as a nation should provide a safe haven for a man who has ordered the murder and torture of his own citizens, who had journalists arrested, tortured and imprisoned because they reported on the crimes and corruptions of his regime.”
President Obama assigned his counter-terror advisor, John Brennan, the leading role in US policy in Yemen, which is centered on the continuity of counter-terror efforts, leading to a wide disconnect with the Yemeni public.
Hours before the latest fatalities in Yemen, US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein said that the Life March although unarmed was not peaceful because it was intended to create chaos and provoke the security forces. The remarks, which appear to blame the protesters for their own deaths, infuriated many and organized efforts are underway demanding the ambassador’s expulsion.
About ten thousand are participating in the march which calls for President Ali Abdullah Saleh and other members of his regime to face trial for numerous massacres and other crimes committed by state security forces against protesters. .
After a trek of 170 miles, the procession was attacked by Central Security forces at it approached Sana’a Change Square, the center of Yemen’s Jasmine Revolution.
Several of the wounded were transported to the protesters’ field hospital in the square. However security forces are blocking ambulances from reaching many of injured bleeding out in the streets.
So far, medics have confirmed one fatality, but the number may rise as state violence is ongoing. Other reports indicate six were killed in the unprovoked attack.
CNN’s Mohammed Jamjoon reported on twitter that one protester said, “Everyone here is screaming, blood and tear gas everywhere..It’s a warzone out here.”
The march set out from Taiz on Tuesday to highlight public rejection of a UN sanctioned transition plan that offers President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime immunity from prosecution for crimes against the citizenry, including decades of mass corruption and assaults on protesters that resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries since February.
The six nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) devised the transition plan, which was roundly and repeatedly rejected by Yemenis since its proposal in April. However the US, EU and Saudi Arabia support the blueprint as a mechanism to restore stability.
The UN Security Council in a press statement on Friday expressed its endorsement of the plan saying, “The members of the Security Council reiterated their call that the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and implementation mechanism must be implemented in a transparent and timely manner.”
Beyond the immunity clause, Yemeni protesters also dispute the authenticity of the transition of power that is said to have occurred when Saleh’s Vice President assumed some executive authority. The protest movement rather uniformly sees the unity government is an extension of the long reigning Saleh military dictatorship and compromised “opposition” party leaders.
Re-branding the the regime will do little to address the multiple crises Yemen is facing as the underlying cause is the Saleh regime itself, activists allege. Today’s violence is an indication that little has changed despite international pronouncements to the contrary..
“These GCC states are not at all competent to deal with popular requests for liberty and freedom, not to mention democratic government, because they themselves are mostly despotic regimes,” observed Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC). “They themselves would never welcome such requests from their own people, let alone be ready to accommodate such demands by people in neighboring states.”
The Obama administration’s insistence in retaining elements of the Saleh administration and security forces has thwarted the regime change demanded by millions and allowed al Qaeda to flourish in southern towns. Although US counter-terror efforts have had more latitude to operate since protests began, the Saleh regime and al Qaeda have long had a symbiotic relationship.
Reports issued one hour into the attack confirmed seven dead from gun shot wounds and eighty-eight injured.
Yemen’s opposition party coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), announced Tuesday that it would support a US approved consensus candidate from the ruling party, Vice President Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi, in upcoming presidential elections.
On November 24, President Ali Abdullah Saleh nominally transferred executive powers to Mr. Hadi but will remain Yemen’s honorary president until a new election on February 21, 2012.
After months of UN mediation, a unity government of ruling party and JMP leaders was formed earlier this month. Of particular concern is the retention of key security and military posts by Saleh loyalists. The new cabinet, which is largely beyond any mechanism of public accountability, approved a national reconciliation plan on Monday.
However, mass public protests are continuing in Yemen, even after November’s symbolic transfer of presidential power. Last Friday, hundreds of thousands across the nation participated in demonstrations themed, “Saleh’s trial is our demand.”
On Tuesday, thousands of protesters embarked on a 170 mile march from the southern province of Taiz to the capital city, Sana’a to highlight rejection of international guarantees of immunity for President Saleh and other officials. Both cities experienced repetitive massacres at the hands of state security forces since pro-democracy protests began last February. Thousands were killed and wounded.
The opposition parties in the JMP neither led nor initially endorsed the grass roots “Jasmine Revolution” in Yemen.
Protesters, rejecting both the ruling regime and the opposition parties, were frozen out of transition planning when their demands conflicted with those of the international community—stability and the continuity of counter-terror efforts.
The well articulated demands of the Yemeni public include, in addition to Saleh’s trial, the freezing his funds abroad, removal of the entire Sana’a regime, a public accounting of embezzled funds, a six month transitional period, and the correction of mass irregularities in the voter rolls under an impartial electoral commission leading to parliamentary system based on proportional list-based elections.
The JMP’s participation in an uncontested election in 60 days was greeted with derision by many in Yemen.
“The opposition in Yemen is as dirty as President Saleh’s party, and their turn will come. No one is excluded from the wrath of the people. Billions are still lost every year in corruption scandals. None of these files have been opened, so how can we consider the revolution over…From today, anyone who holds a high post in government will be held accountable,” as an editorial in the Yemen Post gave voice to the sentiment.
Years of unbridled government corruption and economic malfeasance had brought Yemen to the brink of collapse prior to the eruption of street protests which only further stalled economic activity. The UN estimates four million Yemenis will need food aid in the coming year.
A toothless UN Security Council resolution issued October 21 condemned nationwide human rights abuses by Yemeni authorities but contained no sanctions and did little to reduce state violence. The resolution also endorsed the implementation of the current transition plan, which was devised by the six nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In addition to speedy presidential elections, a key and controversial element of the GCC plan is immunity for Saleh and others implicated in serious human rights violations. Yemenis have called it a free pass for murder. Amnesty International called the UN’s support for the GCC plan, “a hammer blow to accountability for human rights violations.”
“By lending their support to the transition deal, it appears that UN officials have allowed wiggle room for serious human rights violators to go unpunished in Yemen and violated the UN Secretary General’s directive that prohibits brokering peace agreements which contain immunity clauses,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Acting Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The GCC plan’s strongest supporters are the US and Saudi Arabia, and its most vocal critics are the Yemeni people themselves. Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman urged the UN to “stand up for human rights and democracy, which are the principles it was founded upon,” and to prosecute Saleh, whom she described as a war criminal.
However, the prosecution of Yemeni officials for crimes against humanity may also implicate Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which in 2009 bombed “rebel villages,” a hospital and other civilian infrastructure in Sa’ada, Yemen. Similarly western nations provided satellite imagery and other support to the Sana’a regime during the Sa’ada War (2005-2010) which was characterized by collective punishment of civilians, mass arbitrary arrests, denial of humanitarian aid and indiscriminate bombing, displacing 300,000 citizens, mostly women and children.
Other public demands include “forming an independent higher authority that will ensure freedom of expression.” However in the month since the “transition of power,” political and pro-revolution web sites remain blocked in Yemen. On Wednesday, armed men led by a known Saleh loyalist stormed the offices al Wahada newspaper, preventing the weekly’s distribution, after the editor expressed support for the protesters.
The Yemeni Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (known as HOOD) launched an investigation into “disappeared” activists. HOOD, a credible organization, found that over 1000 protesters are jailed incommunicado and most likely enduring torture.
Abdul Rahman Barman, the executive director of HOOD told the Yemen Post, “the number of imprisoned youth is on the rise and the world must stand against the government for the sake of humanity.”
“These youth are being tortured and attacked fiercely. Some leave government custody with their minds lost from the torture,” added Barman.
While many protesters were grabbed randomly, Yemeni bloggers, tweeters, facebookers and journalists are targeted in particular. Last Friday, millions across Yemen marched, appealing for solidarity from people in the free world, but gained little western media coverage.
Its also likely some of the missing are dead. After nearly every protest, the state steals the wounded and corpses from hospitals and the streets to reduce the body count. At least three mass graves have been discovered since February.
One family came forward to report the Sanaa regime offered them $10,000 to accuse the opposition in their son’s murder, after he was shot in the eye and killed by the security forces.
Earlier witness testimony detailed brutal torture of prisoners in Yemen, including children as young as 12, at the hands of Yemeni security forces.
Violence has increased since the UN Security Council passed resolution 2014 two weeks ago strongly urging Saleh to step down. Its par for the course.
During 1994’s civil war, President Ali Abdullah Saleh ignored two security council resolutions calling for the immediate end to the random shelling of Aden City. Saleh’s utter disregard for the resolutions and the forced imposition of unity on south Yemen in 1994 gives rise to southern Yemenis’ claims that they are “occupied” by the northern Saleh regime.
About half of Yemen’s 25 million citizens are under 15 years old. The protest marches demanding regime change take place across the nation and draw the millions to the streets weekly. Hundreds of thousands of youth activists and others are living in protest squares since February, refusing to go home until Saleh and his regime are deposed.
What began as a bloody day in Yemen, with random shelling in two cities, turned into an overnight massacre.
In the capital Sanaa today, two were killed in a busy shopping district, including a teen, when state security forces began random shelling. The area is under the control of youthful protesters who have been demonstrating since January for the overthrow of the Saleh regime.
In Taiz, Republican Guard forces shelled residential areas in the city center, injuring several residents. In the evening, the city’s protest center, Freedom Square was attacked. So far, eight fatalities have been reported along with dozens of injuries as the violence continues.
The Republican Guard, which contains the US trained elite counter-terror unit, is headed by President Ali Saleh’s son, Ahmed, and has committed much of the violence against protesters. Another of Saleh’s relatives, nephew General Yahya Saleh, heads the Central Security forces. In an interview with France24, General Saleh said the revolution was “boring” and accused defected soldiers of shooting the protesters to create negative publicity for the regime.
In May, state forces set Taiz’s Freedom Square ablaze at midnight and shot fleeing protesters. The square was later cleared by bulldozers. But despite nearly 100 fatalities on that day, the protesters re-took the square and continue to hold daily protests and rallies calling for the ouster of the regime.
The Organizational Committee of the Popular Revolution issued a press release on Tuesday urging UN action against the Saleh regime. The committee highlighted hundreds of protester fatalities and said the months long black-out was a tactic of collective punishment meant to coerce the millions of demonstrators into submission.
“We are being murdered once by Saleh’s regime weapons and his children, and we’re being murdered more by your silence,” the statement read.
Protesters asked the UN to refer the Saleh regime to the International Criminal Court and freeze his assets. They urged member states to suspend weapons sales and to end to military support and assistance.
The letter which was addressed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, asked the UN to “stand on the side of the young males and females and the people of Yemen to achieve their legitimate demands in change and establishing a civil, modern and democratic country.”
The Saleh regime has stalled the international community for months, agreeing and then rejecting an initiative which afforded the dictatorship immunity from prosecution in return for a transfer of power to a transition government. General Saleh clarified in the interview that his uncle, President Saleh, has no intention of ever signing.
The Yemeni Organization for Rights and Freedoms, known as HOOD, issued a statement urging the international community “to help the Yemeni people to restore their right to elect who rules them and how, and to spare the Yemeni people the ordeal and destruction of war.”
Through six months of protests, millions of Yemenis have taken to the streets to demand an end to the dictatorship of Field Marshal Ali Abdullah Saleh. Attacks by security forces on the protest squares throughout the country have killed hundreds and wounded thousands.
As the impoverished nation teeters on economic collapse, continuing arms sales and shipments may lead the nation to a “catastrophic internal war,” HOOD warned.
In the statement, HOOD “calls for all countries of the world to stop exporting arms to Yemen, and condemns in particular the Russian continuous provision of arms and military equipment to the Republican Guards which makes Russia a war partner in the killing of the Yemeni people and the destruction of its infrastructure.”
The Republican Guard, headed by Saleh’s son Ahmed, contains the counter-terror unit and is responsible for many of the civilian deaths since the youth revolution began. Ahmed Saleh has become the de facto ruler of Yemen while his father recovers in Saudi Arabia from injuries sustained in a bombing. However, western nations have urged Vice President Mansour Hadi to accept presidential authority.
Russia earlier thwarted efforts in the UN Security Council to issue a statement condemning the state’s attacks on unarmed protesters.
Russia is Yemen’s largest bilateral creditor, with Yemen’s debt exceeding one billion dollars, incurred primarily from purchases of military hardware including an estimated 18 MIG war planes.
Russia accounted for nearly 59 percent of all major weapons deliveries to Yemen during 2004-2008, followed by Ukraine at 25 percent, Italy at 10 percent, Australia’s five percent, and the United States at less than one percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Local jihaddists in Abyan, Yemen are fighting their former allies, al Qaeda militants from other countries and other Yemeni provinces, for control of Ja’ar City. The combined group, which calls itself “Ansar al Shariah,” has been in control of areas of Abyan since May when the military withdrew.
Clashes between local jihaddists and al Qaeda erupted Monday morning, al Teef reported. The local militants’ commander, Abullatif Al Sayed, tried to expel the non-resident terrorists who had earlier joined their operations for control of the province. Many came from Marib and are linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The gun battle that ensued raged for hours and the number of casualties is unknown.
Al Sayed objected to the “vast destruction” and “looting” that the AQAP members inflicted on the city.
In May, President Saleh warned of an al Qaeda take over if he was removed from power. Days later military units withdrew from Abyan, leaving behind a vast cache of weapons. Extremists from across the country moved in to seize control of the capital Zinjibar and other cities including Ja’ar, using the state’s abandoned arms. The group branded itself as Ansar al Sharia, and declared the establishment of an Islamic Emirate.
AQAP touted the battles in Abyan in the last issue of its magazine, Inspire, and noted the deaths of long time jihaddists Ali Abdullah al Harithi and Ammar al Waeli in a June 3rd US air strike in Znijibar.
The 25th Mechanized Brigade, stationed near Zinjibar, was ordered by the Defense Ministry to surrender twice but refused. The Yemeni military made no progress against the insurgents for two months.
Yemen’s US trained elite counter-terror units were not deployed against the terrorists in Abyan but against unarmed youthful revolutionaries across the nation. Millions of Yemenis have been protesting since February for the removal of the entire Saleh regime and the establishment of a transitional council. Opposition parties said the council will be announced on August 17.
As a result of the stalemate in Abyan and the devastating humanitarian crisis that unfolded—100,000 residents fled the fighting—an estimated 1600 tribesmen joined in support of the 25th Mechanized to engage the militants. The ad hoc force wrested control of Lauder and parts of Zinjibar from the jihaddists. In July, Yemen’s Air Force “accidentally” bombed the tribesmen, killing nine along with two military commanders.
The stance of the local tribesmen against the jihaddist forces exacerbated the divisions among them, SaadaAden website noted. The local jihaddists accused AQAP of creating “overwhelming discontent” among the population in “a war without limits.”
The local jihaddists, as distinct from al Qaeda, have no transnational coordination, support or goals and never pledged loyalty to any external entity or person (except President Saleh). This group first emerged as the Aden Abyan Islamic Army in the 1990’s and long aspired to an Islamic Emirate in Abyan. The group tried to impose a Taliban style government and murdered four suspected homosexuals when they were last in control of Ja’ar in 2009. At that time, they called themselves Jamaat al Jihad or the Jihad group.
However leader Khalidabdul al Nabi’s call for an Islamic Emirate in December 2009 produced some skepticism as he has had a long, mutually beneficial relationship with the state and bounces between playing the terrorist villain and reformed jihaddist as needed by Saleh.