Sanaa, Yemen - While the people of Yemen struggle to achieve justice for past rights abuses carried out under the former regime, many perpetrators remain political powerbrokers and injustice continues.
When delegates to Yemen's National Dialogue convened on June 9 to debate “transitional justice" - or an attempt to expose past abuses, elicit apologies, guarantee reparations, and prevent future human rights violations - a few kilometres away security forces opened fire on a crowd of Houthi protesters, killing 13 people and wounding as many as 100.
Houthis, who belong to the Shia offshoot Zaydi sect, have fought with government forces for nearly 10 years from their stronghold in Saada, northern Yemen. They had gathered outside the National Security Bureau (NSB) headquarters in old Sanaa to demand the release of Houthi prisoners detained without charge.
Fifteen minutes after the NSB warned the demonstrators to leave, security forces attacked them with water cannon and tear gas, and snipers fired live ammunition from rooftops into the crowd.
"The security forces brutally crushed the protesters because the same mentality and system from the days of [ex-president Ali Abdullah] Saleh are still present today."
- Olfat Dobai, National Dialogue rep
“We were chanting slogans and were peaceful. We had no guns," said Qassim al-Qabat, 18, who helped evacuate the dead and wounded. “We were surprised when they started shooting at us."
When news of the killings reached the National Dialogue halls the next day, protesting delegates staged a walkout, and a government investigative committee was soon announced.
“The security forces brutally crushed the protesters because the same mentality and system from the days of [ex-president Ali Abdullah] Saleh are still present today," said Olfat Dobai, a youth representative to the National Dialogue.
The Houthis are not the only Yemenis demanding the release of detainees.
Minister of Human Rights Hooria Mashhour, followed by youth delegates from the National Dialogue, entered Sanaa's Central Prison on June 3 to express solidarity with 22 desperate detainees. They had been held for 18 months and reportedly tortured, according to their lawyer, and went on a hunger strike to protest their confinement.
The prisoners were arrested after an explosion at former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's presidential mosque exactly two years earlier, killing 11 and forcing the badly wounded president to seek treatment abroad.
Political wrangling between Mashhour, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, Attorney General Ali Ahmed Nasser al-Awash and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh - now head of the powerful General Party Congress (GPC) - led to the release of 17 detainees. Five remain in custody.
|A boy shouts slogans during Hussein al-Houthi's funeral [Reuters]
“They kept the last [five] because I think it's like blackmail. They want to exchange them with those involved in the ‘Friday of Dignity,'" said Mashhour, referring to March 18, 2011 when Saleh's security forces killed 52 revolutionaries near Change Square.
In 2011, the revolution against Saleh's corrupt 33-year-old regime left more than 2,000 dead and an estimated 22,000 wounded. A day of reckoning has never come, and many Yemenis claim the same faces are still in power.
Saleh resigned in February 2012 in exchange for a parliamentary immunity deal to cover him and his cohorts. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and “Friends of Yemen" member states, such as the United States, disregarded the UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay's warning that the immunity deal could violate international law.
This paved the way for President Hadi's one-candidate election and the National Dialogue process, intended to heal the country's deep divisions and to write a new constitution.
But public outrage mounts as Saleh, with his amassed wealth, continues to reside in downtown Sanaa and serve as the outspoken leader of the GPC, which counts President Hadi as a party member.
“Immunity was a national political arrangement to avoid a bloody scenario," said Mashhour. “But at the international level, it is not acknowledged at all."
Amatalim Alsoswa is a National Dialogue member and the former human rights minister under Saleh regime. She said she's alarmed by the immunity agreement and what a broad interpretation could mean.
“The other problem is the current regime, which is a continuation of the former regime," Alsoswa said. “Will they be given immunity as well since they were part of Saleh's regime? Are they interested in keeping the immunity for him so that they can get part of it too?"
"We need justice to be served. We need to try the corrupt leaders for their crimes."
- Hassan al-Masery, schoolteacher
It is not clear whether Saleh's immunity guarantee will last. This month a Yemeni court upheld a decision to summon him and 11 aides for questioning about their role in the “Friday of Dignity" massacre.
Meanwhile, there is little consensus over what transitional justice legislation will look like, how widely it will be applied, and how far back it will extend.
The fear in the National Dialogue is that in order to meet a consensus between its 565 diverse members, the results could be devoid of substance.
The deadlock is mirrored within the government.
Since an inter-ministerial working group hit an impasse and handed their draft “Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation" law to President Hadi's office, it has been edited to narrowly focus on the 2011 violations and “reconciliation" before “justice". The legislation is currently stalled in parliament.
On a separate track, Hadi's presidential decree last September to set up a national investigation commission to examine the 2011 human rights violations has not materialised.
And the effort of the newly appointed and overburdened committees to address land theft and the redundant workforce in the south on a case-by-case basis is considered a political gambit to buy time and support for the National Dialogue.
Hassan al-Masery, 30, a schoolteacher from Dhamar, routinely joins the protests outside the attorney general's office, calling for the release of political detainees. He holds out hope that his missing childhood friend and fellow activist, Hammoud Barakat, can be found.
“We need justice to be served," he said quietly. “We need to try the corrupt leaders for their crimes."