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YEMEN: Death Toll Rising at Peaceful Protests

David Elkins

WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2011 (IPS) - Despite an ongoing dialogue between U.S. officials, human rights groups and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh regarding concerns over the use of lethal force to quell anti- government protests throughout the Persian Gulf state, the death toll continues to rise in Yemen’s port city of Aden and in other locations.

“Shooting into crowds is no way to respond to peaceful protests,” asserted Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Governments in the region and beyond should make clear to Yemen that international assistance comes with the condition of respecting human rights.”

Despite President Saleh’s concessions to some demands of the oppositional al-Islah party, including plans for a new constitution within a year and Saleh’s announcement to end his 32-year rule by 2013, protesters – particularly those associated with student-led movements in the capital city of Sana’a – continue to voice their dissatisfaction with the status quo by demanding Saleh’s immediate resignation.

The recent death of two Yemenis protesting in the Harf Sufyan district prompted calls for investigations of security personnel involved in the incident.

“We have credible allegations that thousands of peaceful protesters faced live fire by Yemen’s military outside Harf Sufyan and that two unarmed civilians paid with their lives,” Stork said. “[A]uthorities should immediately investigate what happened there on Mar. 4.”

Accompanying local media reports that have claimed that an upwards of 25 have been killed in Yemen since protests began, a recent HRW publication verified that between Feb. 16 and Feb. 25, military and security forces killed at least nine protestors in Aden. A majority of the victims were under the age of 18, according to the report.

“These disturbing, heavy-handed tactics used with lethal effect against protesters must stop immediately,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, stated Wednesday. “People must be allowed to assemble and protest in peace.”

Additionally, according to the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, other forms of human rights abuses remain unchecked. The organisation documented 53 cases in which journalists were harassed by government security officials or pro-government supporters.

“It is incumbent upon Yemen’s political leaders to establish a clear path for implementing both Saleh’s promises and ensuring a peaceful transfer of power,” April Alley, International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Senior Arabian Peninsula Analyst, stated. “Time is of the essence. The alternative could be a cycle of serious, pervasive violence that would jeopardise the real possibility to reform a failing social contract.”

The United States government, which doubled foreign aid to Yemen in 2010 and broadened cooperation with its government to include economic and political stabilisation initiatives, has, in comparison to protests in Egypt and Libya, taken a decidedly less forceful tone in addressing the unrest.

Instead of calling for wholesale regime-change, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feierstein conveyed the U.S. government’s intent to focus on finding a compromise between President Saleh and the various opposition groups through a national dialogue.

“We’ve been clear in saying we don’t believe that the demonstrations are the place where Yemen’s problems will be solved. We think the problems have to be resolved through this process of dialogue and negotiations,” Feierstein told Reuters.

“Our question is always, ‘If President Saleh leaves, then what do you do on the next day?'” he continued.

Yemen’s political and social dynamics have been marked by divisive infighting for years – particularly the rebel uprisings in the north and repeated calls for secession in the south – which has constrained the protesters’ ability to present a united opposition. But the enduring nature of protests indicates a functioning dialogue among the disparate groups to maintain pressure on Saleh’s government.

Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Ziandani , a leading figure in Yemen’s religious establishment who has been known for his close ties with Saleh, condemned the government’s violent attacks and joined a number of those who have resigned from Saleh’s cabinet and parliament in voicing their dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of the protests.

ICG issued a series of recommendations Thursday encouraging all stakeholders involved, including the United States, to continue working towards an effective national dialogue and emphasised the need to provide sufficient channels to voice protestors’ demands for reform.

“Ensur[ing] that security assistance does not skew the playing field against reformers” should be a necessary component of the United States and other Western donor nations’ approach to working with the Yemeni government and opposition groups, argued the ICG.

As the Obama administration grapples over policy positions regarding Libya, where thousands of anti-government protestors and rebels have been killed, the overall strategy in Yemen remains tentative.

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