Government security forces and supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh killed more than 200 people in protests as the President faced mass demonstrations demanding reform and his departure from office. Many were killed while peacefully protesting; thousands more were injured. The protests were fuelled by popular anger over mounting poverty, unemployment, corruption and the brutally repressive response of the government. The security forces and government supporters repeatedly used live ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and other excessive and lethal force against peaceful demonstrations and during clashes when opponents of the President also resorted to violence. The security forces carried out mass arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, and used torture and other ill-treatment with impunity. Media workers and outlets came under sustained attack. Women and girls continued to face severe discrimination. Many women played a key role in the protests and some were arrested, beaten or harassed as a result. New death sentences were passed and at least 41 people were executed. Government and US forces attacked and killed alleged al-Qa’ida members; some civilians were also killed in the attacks.
In January, the government proposed changes to the Constitution under which President Saleh, in power since 1978, would have been able to stand for re-election on an unlimited basis. The proposals sparked widespread protests, including a large demonstration in Sana’a, the capital, on 22 January. The next day, there were further protests after Tawakkol Karman, head of the NGO Women Journalists Without Chains, was arrested; she was quickly released on bail and in October was one of three women jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The demonstrations were met with violence by the security forces but grew and spread to Aden and other cities, with some demonstrators calling for the President and his government to be replaced.
In response, on 2 February, President Saleh said he would stand down when his existing presidential term ended in 2013 and hold discussions with the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of six opposition parties, but this fuelled rather than halted the protests. The next day, when students and activists belonging to Youth of the Revolution demonstrated, the security forces began using lethal force against the protesters in Sana’a and elsewhere.
Several people were killed in mid-February during mass protests in various cities. Sit-in protests and protest camps of tents sprung up near Sana’a University and in Ta’izz in what were soon called al-Taghyeer (change) squares. On 23 February, nine ruling party members of parliament resigned in protest against the violence used by government forces against protesters.
On 28 February, President Saleh reportedly proposed to form a national unity government including members of the opposition. The opposition demanded that he leave office first, proposing a transition plan under which he would do so before the end of 2011. President Saleh rejected this and the crisis deepened dramatically on 18 March, when government snipers fired on the “Change Square” protest camp in Sana’a, killing at least 52 protesters; a number of government ministers and officials resigned in protest and the general commanding the army’s First Brigade said he and his men would now support the protesters. President Saleh dismissed the cabinet, announced a caretaker government, and imposed a 30-day state of emergency, which the parliament approved on 23 March. This suspended the Constitution, tightened media censorship and extended security forces’ powers of arrest and detention and to ban street protests.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervened to mediate between President Saleh and his opponents. On 23 April, President Saleh said he would accept a GCC proposal to relinquish the presidency within 30 days and allow a national unity government to be formed and under which he and his associates would be given immunity against prosecution. However, he then repeatedly refused to sign the agreement as his forces increasingly clashed with armed members of tribes who came out in opposition to him and with armed Islamists believed to be linked to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, who seized control of parts of Abyan province.
On 3 June, an attack on the presidential palace seriously injured President Saleh and killed and wounded others. The President was evacuated to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, leaving the Vice President in charge. The opposition formed an alliance in August, the National Council for the Revolutionary Forces, but this quickly became divided. An uneasy stalemate developed and there were continuing armed clashes; a fact-finding team sent by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed to serious human rights violations and called for an international investigation and accountability.
President Saleh returned to Yemen on 23 September, prompting mass demonstrations by his supporters and his opponents.
On 21 October, the UN Security Council condemned the continuing violence in Yemen and urged President Saleh to hand over power in accordance with the GCC agreement. On 23 November he signed the agreement, handing power to the Vice President to appoint a new Prime Minister heading a “government of national reconciliation” and to hold presidential elections within 90 days. In return, President Saleh and his aides were to be given immunity for crimes committed during his rule. Within two weeks, a Prime Minister from the opposition was appointed and a national government was formed representing the ruling party and members of the opposition. Protests continued denouncing the reported immunity agreement.
2011 also saw armed clashes in the north and the south, leading to forcible displacement of civilians. In the north, Sa’dah province effectively came under the control of Huthi rebels in late March and later in the year they reportedly took control of parts of other provinces. In the southern province of Abyan, government forces clashed with armed Islamist militants. Armed clashes also took place in Sana’a and Ta’izz between security forces and armed tribes and soldiers who had defected, who had announced they were seeking to protect protesters. Many were killed during the clashes, including some as a result of heavy shelling by government forces.
An already dire humanitarian situation deteriorated to crisis point as Yemenis struggled with acute shortages of water and other necessities, burgeoning unemployment and living costs, and cuts to power and oil supplies.Top of page
In the face of peaceful anti-government protests, as well as during clashes in some parts of the country, the security forces resorted to excessive and disproportionate force, including lethal force. They used live ammunition, tear gas, batons, electric stun guns and polluted water spray. Snipers on rooftops and gunmen at street level repeatedly fired at peaceful protesters. Security forces also attacked protesters when they were at their most vulnerable, late at night and during prayer. Armed men in plain clothes known as “baltaji“ (“thugs”) attacked anti-government protesters with batons and firearms, often in the presence of the security forces and with their acquiescence. They and the security forces attacked protesters with almost total impunity; the authorities announced investigations into some killings but they were not independent and their outcomes were unclear.
Hundreds of people were arbitrarily arrested and detained in connection with the protests, adding to the number of those in detention, some of whom had been held long before the protests began. In June-July, a UN delegation that gained access to a prison in Sana’a run by Political Security found both Yemenis and foreign nationals there who had been detained without charge or trial or brought before a judge for months and even years.
Both Yemeni government and US forces undertook security operations against suspected al-Qa’ida members, particularly in Abyan province, using air strikes and other means, some of which resulted in deaths and injuries to civilians.
Government fighter jets attacked the southern city of Zinjibar in May after it was seized by Islamist militants, who took over banks and a government compound and reportedly committed human rights abuses. On 11 September, the authorities announced that the army had regained most of the city after more than three months of fighting in which 230 soldiers and 50 members of local tribes were said to have been killed.Top of page
The government tightened controls on freedom of expression and targeted journalists and media seen as critics of President Saleh. Journalists and other media workers were killed, attacked, harassed, threatened and imprisoned during the unrest, and restrictive press laws and repressive actions by the security forces severely undermined press freedom and other expression. Several foreign journalists were attacked or expelled from Yemen. Dozens of publications were reported to have been seized and websites hacked or suspended. Several journalists employed by state-run media were sacked after they joined anti-government protests.
There were new reports of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees by the security forces. The most commonly reported methods were beatings, electric shocks, burning with cigarettes and suspension by the limbs, often for long periods.
During the period that Islamist militants controlled Zinjibar, they applied a strict interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law) there, and in September were reported to have amputated the hands of two men accused of theft, one of whom died as a result.Top of page
Women and girls continued to face severe discrimination in law and in practice; this was particularly pronounced in rural areas. However, women played a major and sometimes leading role in the anti-government protests, leading President Saleh on 15 April to publicly condemn as “un-Islamic” the mixing of women and men in protests; in response, thousands of women demonstrated in defiance of what they saw as an attempt by the President to curtail their rights to freedom of expression and to participate in public affairs. Women activists and journalists were targeted by the security forces and pro-government supporters, harassed, arrested and in some cases beaten for participating in the protests. Some were also threatened via their family, with male relatives being told to assert control and curtail their activism.
Yemen continued to host more than 200,000 African refugees, mostly from Somalia, with a new influx from August sparked by drought, conflict and political insecurity. They experienced harsh conditions, exacerbated by Yemen’s growing political, economic and humanitarian crisis, and many staged protests outside the offices of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
At least 29 people were sentenced to death and at least 41 were executed; the real numbers may have been considerably higher. Hundreds of people remained under sentence of death.