Yemen | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Yemen's civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to changes in the survey methodology.


Seeking to maintain stability and stave off the threat of U.S. military intervention, the Yemeni government continued to crack down on suspected al-Qaeda supporters in 2002. In spite of a series of brazen attacks by Islamic militants during the year, the government's campaign of arbitrary arrests and deportations has not been accompanied by increased restriction on freedom of expression or the postponement of parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 2003.

Strategically located at the junction of ancient trading routes, Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Middle East. Although unified since the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, or North Yemen) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) 13 years ago, the northern and southeastern regions of the country have long been geographically and culturally distinct. Since the influx of persecuted Shiites in the seventh and eighth centuries from what is today Iraq and Iran, the tribes of the northern highlands have practiced a distinct form of Shiite Islam known as Zaydism. A succession of Zaydi imams ruled the mountains and coastal plain of northern Yemen until 1962, when military officers launched a coup and established the YAR. The predominantly Sunni Muslim coastal plain and interior of southern Yemen came under British control in the mid-nineteenth century and gained independence in 1967, when British troops withdrew and Marxist rebels seized power.

In 1990, severe economic crises and mounting popular discontent in South Yemen led PDRY president Ali Salim al-Biedh to accept unification with the YAR. The initial transition period, in which Biedh's Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) shared power with the General People's Congress (GPC) of North Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became head of the new republic, witnessed unprecedented political reforms. Because of the former North Yemen's much larger population, the GPC dominated its rival politically and won an overwhelming victory in the 1993 parliamentary elections. The YSP, which finished third behind the Islamist Islah (Reform) Party, boycotted the new government and tried to reestablish an independent South Yemen the following year. The result was a bloody, 70-day civil war that ended with the exile of Biedh and other YSP leaders.

Yemen's experiment with democracy continued after the war, though the YSP's boycott of national elections allowed the GPC to dominate political life. The GPC-dominated parliament quickly approved constitutional changes that gave the president broad powers and, in return for Islamist support for Saleh during the fighting, declared Sharia (Islamic law) to be the unique source of all legislation. Islah was awarded control of several ministries and allowed to run a vast network of government-subsidized religious schools. Saleh, who is from the Sanhan tribe of the Hashid Confederation, appointed his own clansmen to top military commands and secured the support of other tribes through the distribution of state funds and civil service positions, while allowing them to maintain large standing militias, bypass governmental courts in resolving disputes, and hold foreigners hostage for ransom payments. In February 2001, the government won approval in a popular referendum to extend presidential and parliamentary terms, which some observers noted would allow Saleh to retire (assuming he wins in 2006) just as his son turns 40--the minimum age for presidential candidates in Yemen.

The virtual absence of governmental authority outside of major cities and the influx of foreign students to Islamist schools (most notably the American Taliban member John Walker Lindh) facilitated the emergence of armed Islamic groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden. Unwilling to endanger tribal and Islamist support for his regime, Saleh resisted American pressure to rein in these groups following the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor, but relented in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, when U.S. officials warned that Yemen was a potential target of military action. After 18 Yemeni soldiers died in a botched raid in December 2001, the United States began a crash program to train and equip the security forces.

The crackdown continued in 2002. Although the government said in late May that only 85 people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda were in custody, Islah leader Abdullah al-Ahmar maintained that there were hundreds, and "perhaps thousands," in detention and that some had been turned over to the United States. The government also closed or assumed control over hundreds of madrasahs (Islamist schools). In November, the authorities permitted an unmanned U.S. Predator aircraft to assassinate a senior al-Qaeda leader and five of his aides. Nevertheless, the year witnessed numerous outbreaks of violence by Islamist radicals. In April, a number of bomb attacks on governmental buildings were carried out by a group calling itself "Sympathizers of al-Qaeda," and unspecified terrorist threats led to the closure of the U.S. embassy for six days. On October 6, suspected al-Qaeda operatives bombed the Limburg, a French oil tanker, off the coast of Mukalla. In December, Islamists assassinated the deputy leader of the YSP, Jarallah Omar, and killed three Americans at a missionary hospital in Jibla.

The government has made little progress in tackling the grinding poverty that fuels Islamic militancy in Yemen. More than a third of the population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment is unofficially estimated at up to 40 percent. The tourism industry virtually collapsed following the September 11 attacks, and the number of ships docking in Aden shrank even further after the Limburg bombing. Although the government has cut public spending and reduced inflation since it began implementing an IMF-prescribed structural adjustment program in 1995, foreign investment has been negligible outside of the petroleum sector because of widespread corruption and the precarious security situation. Saleh's allies in Islah have opposed family planning programs to combat the country's soaring 3.2 percent population growth rate. Revelations that the government had purchased Scud missiles from North Korea in December prompted Japan to declare that it would reconsider its current level of aid to Yemen.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The right of citizens to change their government is limited by the concentration of real political power in the hands of the president and his appointed cabinet. The 301-seat House of Representatives has never exercised its constitutional right to initiate legislation, though it has blocked or revised draft legislation submitted by the government on numerous occasions. The establishment of an appointed 111-member Shura (Consultative) Council in 2001 was seen as diluting the authority of the elected legislature. There are nearly 40 registered political parties representing a diverse ideological spectrum.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are based on universal suffrage, are overseen by an independent electoral commission, and have been deemed relatively free and fair by domestic and international monitors. However, after a leftist boycott of the 1997 parliamentary elections, the GPC gained a commanding majority of 226 seats and Islah won 64 seats. The 1999 presidential election was not competitive, as the main opposition candidate's nomination failed to win the approval of at least 10 percent of parliamentary members, as required by law. Municipal council elections in February 2001 were marred by allegations of vote rigging and widespread election day violence that left at least 40 dead. Provincial governors who wield most local power remain appointed.

Although Yemeni law provides due process safeguards, arbitrary arrests and prolonged incommunicado detention are common. In July 2002, Amnesty International reported that "thousands of people have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention" since September 11, 2001, including members of Islamic groups, students at religious schools, and anyone who had recently traveled to Afghanistan. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 of these detainees remained imprisoned without trial or access to family or lawyers at the end of 2002. There is credible evidence that the authorities torture and abuse detainees in order to coerce confessions.

Judges are appointed by the executive branch and have been subject to reassignment or removal for issuing rulings against the government. Judicial independence is further hampered by poor training, corruption, and the government's frequent reluctance to carry out sentences. Since 1999, the government has introduced substantial judicial reforms and externally funded training programs, though mainly in commercial and public finance courts. Local tribal leaders frequently adjudicate land disputes and criminal cases in areas under their authority.

Freedom of expression is limited. Broadcast media outlets are government owned and present only official views--particularly significant, given that a slight majority of adults are illiterate. Privately owned print publications give voice to diverse views, but journalists are subject to legal harassment, detention, and prosecution under articles of the Penal Code that impose penalties of up to five years in prison for such vaguely worded offenses as "humiliation of the State" and the publication of "false information" that "threatens public order or the public interest." As a result, journalists exercise self-censorship on issues such as governmental corruption, operations by the security forces, and foreign relations. While the government does not restrict access to the Internet, it remains prohibitively expensive for most Yemenis.

At least three publications were closed in 2002, and around two dozen journalists were reportedly arrested or summoned for questioning (several of them more than once) after writing articles on operations by the security forces, corruption, and other topics. While there were no reports of journalists sentenced to prison terms, four received suspended sentences and several endured lengthy pretrial detention. Amnesty International was still unable to confirm the status of one journalist, Nabil al-Kumaim, two months after his arrest in April.

Although permits are required for public gatherings, they are routinely granted. Several anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations drew tens of thousands of people into the streets during the spring, though police forcibly dispersed crowds approaching Western embassies or consulates on two occasions in April, killing one protestor and wounding six. On December 21, police in the southern Yemeni town of Dhaleh arrested eight demonstrators protesting recent appointments by the provincial governor. In late December, parliament postponed consideration of a governmental draft bill that would require organizers to obtain prior approval for demonstrations from the Interior Ministry and permit the ministry to block protests considered detrimental to public order. The government generally respects freedom of association, though members of the YSP claim to experience frequent harassment by the authorities.

Islam is the state religion; Sunni Muslims constitute about 70 percent of the population, while 30 percent are Zaydi Shiites. Followers of other religions may worship freely, but the law prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing or constructing new places of worship without permits. Yemeni Jews, who number about 500, face restrictions on places of residence and employment. An estimated 200,000 Yemenis of African descent, known as akhdam (literally, "servants"), encounter tremendous social discrimination.

Women enjoy equal political rights, but face substantial legal and traditional discrimination. The Penal Code provides for leniency for persons convicted of violent assault or killing women for perceived deviant behavior--so-called honor crimes. The law discriminates against women in matters of marriage and divorce and prohibits a married woman from leaving the home without the consent of her husband. According to government statistics, 73 percent of Yemeni women are illiterate, compared with 32 percent of men. Saleh has aggressively recruited women into most areas of government, appointing the country's first female cabinet minister in April 2001.

Workers may form unions, but the government regularly places its own personnel in influential positions inside unions and syndicates. 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.