Misgivings over Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity deal

YEMEN’S parliament has approved a law granting outgoing president Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity from prosecution, part of a deal for him to formally step down after nearly a year of unrest.

Opposition politicians have accused the security forces, controlled by the president and aides, of using snipers to kill hundreds of demonstrators who, inspired by revolts elsewhere in the Arab world, have protested since last January against his rule.

Politicians also voted for vice-president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi becoming the candidate for all parties in a presidential election next month to replace Saleh following his 33-year rule.

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The immunity law, backed by a majority, stops short of giving full protection to Saleh’s aides after being amended to say they would only be protected for “politically motivated” crimes committed conducting official duties, not those considered “terrorist acts”.

The deal, part of the plan hammered out by Yemen’s wealthier Gulf neighbours to ease Saleh from power, will cover his entire presidency and cannot be cancelled or appealed.

Oil exporter Saudi Arabia and the United States had backed autocratic Saleh for much of his rule, but endorsed the transition deal, fearing continued unrest would be exploited by al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, seen by Washington as the network’s most dangerous branch.

A Middle Eastern diplomat involved in discussions over Saleh’s fate said the president was still planning to visit the US for medical treatment but would not leave Yemen permanently.

Yesterday, a senior Yemeni official said Saleh would have diplomatic immunity if and when he travelled to the US.

“We are waiting for a third country to approve the president’s short visit prior to travelling to the US,” he said.

Some activists said the immunity deal showed that the successes of the protests could easily be overturned.

“We have lost all faith in the political opposition. If they can grant Saleh this kind of pardon perhaps they will pass more laws against us in the future, maybe next time they will pass laws banning demonstrations. We, as the youth, can longer trust them,” said protest leader Faizah Suleiman.

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However, activist Abdulaziz Sakkaf, 22, said: “It is, of course, controversial but it is necessary if a peaceful transfer of power has any chance of succeeding. I don’t support it in principle, but for pragmatic reasons.”

Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman said Saleh and his inner circle must be barred from returning to power if the country was to have any chance of stability.

Analysts say Yemen may become a failed state as the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country also faces challenges including Shi’ite rebels in the north, a resurgent southern separatist sentiment, and al Qaeda-linked militants who have seized towns in the south.

A tribal negotiator revealed yesterday that talks had been broken off with Tareq al-Dahab, leader of an Islamist group that took over the town of Radda, after he demanded that 16 militants be freed and Islamic law be enforced.

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