A Yemeni draft law granting immunity to the outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from prosecution over the killing of protesters was amended yesterday to limit the protection his aides would enjoy, a minister said. The draft law, which has been heavily criticized by rights groups, the United Nations and Yemeni protesters, will now shield the aides only in “political cases,” Legal Affairs Minister Mohammad Makhlafi told Reuters.
It had previously offered blanket immunity to associates of Saleh, who will still get full protection himself, Makhlafi said, without elaborating on what kinds of cases could be tried. Under a power transfer plan hammered out by Yemen’s wealthier Gulf neighbors and signed by Saleh in November, the veteran leader was promised legal immunity to help ease him out of office and end months of protests against his 33-year rule. Rights groups said that hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces in the uprising, which was punctuated by bursts of street fighting between Saleh loyalists and their foes.
Yemenis angry at the draft law are still taking to the streets calling for Saleh to be put on trial and United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay earlier this month warned the immunity offer could violate international law. Discussion of the law in parliament has repeatedly been put off, but Makhlafi said it would now take place on Saturday. The United States has defended the draft law as the only way to coax Saleh from power, but question remain over his intentions after he reversed a pledge to leave Yemen before presidential elections in February.
Washington and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia are keen for the plan to work, fearing protracted political upheaval will let al Qaeda’s regional Yemen-based wing establish a foothold along oil shipping routes through the Red Sea. Islamist militants this week seized the town of Radda, about 170 km (100 miles) southeast of the capital Sanaa, underscoring those concerns. A tribesman negotiating with the militants on behalf of the government said their leader, Tareq al-Dahab, had refused to withdraw unless a council was set up to run the town according to Islamic law and 15 prisoners suspected of links to al Qaeda were released, including his brother Nail.