Freedom in the World
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President Ali Abdullah Saleh identified national reconciliation as Yemen’s major priority during celebrations in May to commemorate ten years of unification. However, bitterness prevails among many southerners who continue to see unity as northern domination. Despite an economic reform plan launched in 1995, the south remains largely undeveloped and poor after decades of Communist rule. Southern Yemenis are also dissatisfied with official corruption, cronyism, and restrictions on political and civic participation. Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party dominates the government and parliament, limiting or barring representation by the main opposition Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) of former South Yemen. Presidential elections in 1999, in which parliament blocked the only credible opposition nominee from standing, were widely seen as an insult, or as one YSP official said, “poor stage management.” Observers agree that Saleh’s greatest challenge is the need for comprehensive political and economic reform to combat Yemen’s vast social problems and mistrust between north and south.
After hundreds of years of rule by autocratic religious leaders, the northern Yemen Arab Republic came under military control in 1962. Field Marshall Saleh was elected president by a constituent assembly in 1978. The British controlled the southern People’s Republic of Yemen from 1839 to 1967. Hardline Marxist nationals seized power in the southern capital of Aden following the British withdrawal. North and south were unified into the Republic of Yemen in 1990, with the GPC’s Saleh as president and southern YSP leader Ali Salim al-Biedh as vice president.
In April 1993 parliamentary elections, Saleh and the GPC won the most seats and formed a coalition with the Islamic Islah party and the YSP. Parliament formally elected Saleh and al-Biedh president and vice president, respectively. However, al-Biedh boycotted the new government and called for demilitarization of the former north-south border, decentralization of authority, and investigation into dozens of preelection killings of YSP activists. The south attempted to secede in April 1994, sparking a 70-day civil war. Northern troops prevailed, and al-Biedh and other secessionist leaders fled the country.
Constitutional amendments in 1994 gave the chief executive broad powers and provided for direct presidential elections in 1999. Islah and the GPC formed a governing coalition in October 1994, and 13 opposition groups, led by the YSP, formed the Democratic Opposition Coalition in 1995. April 1997 elections to the 301-seat parliament were generally free and fair, though opposition members denounced the results as a government attempt to legitimize the “unfair” outcome of the civil war.
With the help of the World Bank and the IMF, Saleh has pursued an economic restructuring plan since 1995. A minor oil producer, Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest nations. Unemployment is estimated at around 35 percent, while some 30 percent of Yemenis live in poverty. Yemen has made progress on reducing inflation and budget expenditures, but still needs to reform the civil service, eliminate corruption, and encourage private investment.
One barrier to foreign investment is Yemen’s precarious security situation. The central government’s influence is limited; in governorates outside the larger cities, tribal leaders hold sway. Violence is a problem, as illicit guns outnumber Yemenis by three to one, and Kalashnikov rifles are carried openly. In September, two soldiers were killed and others wounded as armed southern villagers confronted government troops seeking to arrest a suspected separatist. No accurate figures were available on the number of villagers killed in the gun battle, which reportedly lasted ten hours. Disgruntled tribesmen frequently take foreign tourists or oil workers as hostages in order to press the government to grant development projects or release imprisoned fellow tribesmen. These hostages are generally released unharmed and report having been well-treated by their captors. Islamic militancy surfaces occasionally, as the ill-fated kidnapping of 16 Western tourists in December 1998 illustrates, and Yemen is rapidly gaining a reputation as a conduit for terrorism. The country has been identified as a source and transit point for terrorists, weapons, and funding for Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida organization. An apparent suicide bombing on October 12 aimed at the U.S. naval destroyer Cole killed 17 American soldiers and wounded dozens. One key suspect in the attack is believed to be linked with Bin Laden.
The right of citizens to change their government is limited by the concentration of political power in the hands of a few leaders, particularly the president. The parliament is not an effective lawmaking body; it does little more than debate issues, and its power is limited by the president’s authority to rule by decree. Presidential elections in 1999 were seen more as a referendum than an election, as the major opposition candidate was barred by parliament from running. Saleh’s only opponent was a little-known GPC member whose campaign was financed by the government in an attempt to impart the appearance of credibility. The YSP led a coalition of opposition groups urging Yemenis to boycott the polls.
In November, parliament approved constitutional amendments that would extend the president’s term from five to seven years, and that of parliament members from four to six years. The amendments would also create a second chamber of parliament, a 111-seat consultative council appointed by the president to assist in making laws. Opposition leaders denounced the amendments, calling them an attempt by Saleh to further consolidate his power and entrench the status quo. The amendments must be approved by a popular referendum, which is scheduled for February 2001.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges are susceptible to bribery and government influence, and many are poorly trained. Judicial independence is further hampered by the government’s frequent reluctance to carry out sentences. Authorities set up a special court in 1999 to handle cases of kidnapping, which was made a capital offense after the kidnapping of 16 Western tourists by Islamic militants in late 1998. All courts are governed by Sharia (Islamic law), and there are no jury trials. The law lists 13 capital offenses, including some cases of adultery. Since 1999, the government has dismissed several judges accused of corruption or incompetence, and has allowed the World Bank to implement programs to help train judges. These reforms will require time to produce results. Local tribal leaders adjudicate land disputes and criminal cases in areas under their authority.
Various branches of the security forces carry out arbitrary arrest and detention on political grounds, and regularly flout due process rights. Amnesty International reported in March that torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention persist in Yemen, and that legal safeguards concerning arrest, detention, and fair trial are routinely violated. The government has also failed to investigate hundreds of disappearances since the late 1960s in both north and south Yemen. Prisons are overcrowded and their sanitary conditions poor. Mistreatment occurs in private prisons as well as in official facilities. In April, three people died from suffocation as a result of being detained, allegedly by tribal leaders, in a container in Dhamar governorate.
A press law requires that newspapers reapply annually for licenses and that they show continuing evidence of about $5,000 in operating capital. The press is allowed a certain degree of freedom to criticize government officials and policies, yet the government restricts this freedom through legal harassment, detention, and prosecution. In February, a Sanaa court ordered the 30-day suspension of the opposition weekly Al-Wahdawi and placed a permanent ban on one of its contributors after the publication of an article seen as detrimental to Yemeni-Saudi relations. The editor of Al-Ayyam was charged with publishing false information and “insulting public institutions” in an interview with a Muslim cleric. Saif Haderi, editor of Al-Choumou, was suspended from the profession for ten months and fined in August for allegedly slandering the education minister. The weekly Al-Rai al-Aam was the target of a bombing in February. Broadcast media are government owned and present only government views—a significant limitation on access to information, given Yemen’s 60 percent illiteracy rate.
Permits are required for public gatherings, which are monitored by government informers. Associations must register with the government. The independent Yemeni Human Rights Organization operates openly, and international human rights observers are allowed broad access. Members of the YSP face harassment and detention by authorities. In April, a YSP office in Abyan governorate was closed and up to 100 party members and supporters arrested under suspicion of planning a rally to commemorate the victims of two 1998 police killings. Five YSP members were detained in August for meeting without a permit. According to Human Rights Watch, YSP members report that up to $18 million in party funds remain frozen by the government. In September, police opened fire on Palestinians protesting plans to evict them from their camp in Sanaa.
Islam is the state religion; about 75 percent of Yemenis belong to the Shafai order of Sunni Islam, and 25 percent to the Zaydi order of Shia Islam. Followers of other religions may worship freely, but the government forbids proselytizing by non-Muslims, conversions, and the construction of new places of worship without permits. Yemeni Jews, who number about 500, face traditional restrictions on places of residence and employment.
Women face tremendous legal and traditional discrimination, and approximately 80 percent of Yemeni women are illiterate, compared with 35 percent of men. Women convicted of “moral offenses” are arbitrarily detained for indefinite periods under the penal code. In 1999, authorities abolished the minimum marriage age (15) for women, replacing it with the onset of puberty (age nine, according to conservatives) as the age required for marriage. “Honor killings” occur in Yemen, although the number of such killings is difficult to determine because of failure to report or investigate them.
Workers may form unions, but the government regularly places its own personnel in influential positions inside unions and syndicates. Foreign, agricultural, and domestic workers receive limited protection under labor laws. The Yemeni Confederation of Labor Unions is the sole labor federation. The right to bargain collectively and to strike is limited; collective agreements may be invalidated if judged to “damage the economic interests of the country,” and permission to strike must be obtained from the union federation.