Yemen | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Yemen received a downward trend arrow due to governmental restrictions on press freedom, including closing newspapers and detaining journalists on questionable charges.


Troubling signs of a weakening government commitment to press freedom emerged in Yemen, as the government jailed a prominent journalist - Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of the opposition weekly newspaper Al-Shoura - and closed several newspapers in 2004. Some of the government actions to limit press freedom were related to a crackdown following a bloody three-month rebellion, led by cleric and former member of parliament Hussein Badreddin al-Hawthi, in the northern region of Saada.

As part of the ancient Minaean, Sabaean, and Himyarite kingdoms, Yemen has a long history stretching back nearly 3,000 years. For centuries, a series of imams controlled most of northern Yemen and parts of southern Yemen. The Ottoman Empire ruled many of the cities from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and the British Empire controlled areas in the southern part of the country in the first part of the twentieth century, including the port of Aden. Yemen was divided into two countries - the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) - that ultimately became unified in 1990 after decades of conflict and tension.

In the face of widespread poverty and illiteracy, tribal influences that limit the central government's authority in certain parts of the country, a heavily armed citizenry, and the threat of radical Islamist terrorism, Yemen has managed to take some limited steps to improve its record on political rights and civil liberties in the 14 years since unification.

In 1999, President Ali Abdullah Saleh won a five-year term in the country's first nationwide direct presidential election, gaining 96.3 percent of the vote. Saleh's only opponent came from within the ruling General People's Congress (GPC), and his term in office was extended from five to seven years in a 2001 referendum.

Yemen's April 2003 parliamentary election, its third in the last decade, took place despite concerns that popular unrest resulting from the war in Iraq might lead to a postponement. International election observers noted that Yemen had made substantial improvements in electoral management and administration. On the surface, the elections were competitive, with the opposition Islah party taking seats in constituencies that were former strongholds of the ruling party. However, there were numerous problems with the election. Voter registration was characterized by widespread fraud, and underage voting was a pervasive problem.

Yemen was plagued by continued economic woes in 2004, with price inflation in basic food staples such as flour, wheat, fruit, and vegetables causing hardship for many Yemenis. The World Bank criticized Yemen's slow pace of economic reform, saying that the government had failed to implement key reforms such as privatizing state-owned companies and reforming the civil service. In June, Saleh announced that the government would delay a proposed move to reduce diesel fuel subsidies.

Yemen has faced challenges from terrorist and secessionist movements over the past decade. In 2004, a Yemeni court convicted 15 men for their roles in plotting and conducting a series of terrorist attacks in Yemen over the last four years.

In June 2004, clashes broke out between government forces and supporters of Hussein Badreddin al-Hawthi, a prominent cleric in Yemen's Zaidi community in the northern region of Saada. Al-Hawthi, who formed an opposition group called Believing Youth, had become strongly critical of the Yemeni government's relationship with the United States, accusing the government of taking actions to please the United States at the expense of the Yemeni people. Hundreds of people were reportedly killed in the clashes, with several human rights organizations calling for inquiries into reports of extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, and incommunicado detentions by government forces. The government stamped out the rebellion by the fall of 2004. Saleh accused several opposition political parties of supporting Al-Hawthi's insurgency.

Despite these worrying signs of backsliding on political reform, the government continued to take steps to present an image of a country moving forward on democratic reform, participating in numerous international conferences on democratic development and hosting an intergovernmental regional conference on democracy, human rights, and the role of the International Criminal Court in January 2004.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Yemen cannot change their government democratically. On the surface, Yemen appears to have a relatively open democratic system, with citizens of Yemen voting for president and members of parliament. In reality, Yemen's politics is monopolized by the ruling party, the GPC, which has increased the number of parliament seats it holds from 145 in 1993 to 237 in the current parliament. Yemen's government suffers from the absence of any real system of checks and balances of power and any significant limits on the executive's authority.

Yemen is headed by a popularly elected president, with a bicameral parliament composed of a 301-seat, popularly elected House of Representatives and an 111-member Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, appointed by the president. The House of Representatives has legislative authority, and the Majlis al-Shura serves in an advisory capacity. Yemen is one of the few countries in the Arab world to organize regular elections on national and local levels, with limited competition among the ruling GPC party; two main opposition parties, Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP); and a handful of other parties. Although local council members are popularly elected - the most recent local election was held in 2001 - President Ali Abdullah Saleh appoints all local council chairpersons, who wield most of the decision-making authority.

Corruption is an endemic problem at all levels of government and society. Despite recent efforts by the government to step up efforts to fight corruption and institute a civil service reform program, Yemen lacks most legal safeguards to protect against conflicts of interest. Chief auditing and investigative bodies charged with fighting corruption are not sufficiently independent of the executive authorities. Yemen was ranked 112 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The state maintains a monopoly over the media that reach the most people - television and radio. Access to the Internet is not widespread, and the government reportedly blocks Web sites it deems offensive.

Journalists face threats of violence and death, arbitrary arrest, and often unclear judicial processes. In February, unknown gunmen entered the house of Sadeq Nasher, editor of Al-Khaleej newspaper, and issued a death threat prompted by Nasher's investigations into the December 2002 assassination of political opposition leader Jarallah Omar. In February, Saleh ordered the release of Najeeb Yabli, who was detained for writing an article in Al-Ayyam daily newspaper critical of Saleh's policies. In March, a Yemeni court ordered the release of journalist Saeed Thabet, who was detained for publishing "false information" on an assassination attempt against the president's son, Colonel Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh. Thabet was later fined and banned from working as a journalist for six months by the Western Court of Sana'a. In April, Ahmed Al-Hubaishy, editor of the weekly newspaper May 22, a newspaper that has been critical of Islamic militants, was beaten by unknown assailants.

Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law outlaws direct personal criticism of the head of state and publication of material that "might spread a spirit of dissent and division among the people" or "leads to the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni Revolution, [is] prejudicial to national unity or [distorts] the image of the Yemeni, Arab, or Islamic heritage."

Despite a call by Saleh in June to put an end to imprisonment penalties for press offenses, government authorities used the Press and Publications Law numerous times in 2004. In September, Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of the prominent opposition weekly Al-Shoura, was convicted of incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and encouraging divisions within society because of a series of opinion pieces criticizing the government's actions in Saada. Hundreds were killed in the three-month uprising, which was centered in the northern mountains along Yemen's border with Saudi Arabia. Al-Khaiwani was sentenced to one year in jail, and the government suspended Al-Shoura from publication for six months. While in prison, Al-Khaiwani was attacked and severely beaten by another inmate in early November. The government took steps to withdraw the license of Al-Hurriya newspaper. The Information Ministry closed a new weekly, Al-Neda, for violating Article 37 of the Press and Publications Law, which requires a new newspaper or magazine to publish within six months of registration; Al-Neda had missed this deadline by two days.

Article 2 of the constitution states that Islam is the religion of state, and Article 3 declares Sharia (Islamic law) to be the source of all legislation. Yemen has few religious minority groups, and their rights are generally respected in practice. Strong politicization of campus life, including tensions between supporters of the ruling GPC and opposition Islah parties, places limits on academic freedom.

Yemenis have the right to form associations, according to Article 58 of the constitution. Yemen has several thousand nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), although some observers question the viability and independence of these groups. In October, a Social Affairs Ministry official announced plans to establish new controls on foreign funding for Yemeni NGOs and new regulations for registering NGOs. The government respects the right to form and join trade unions, but some critics claim that the government and ruling party elements have stepped up efforts to control the affairs of these organizations.

Yemenis enjoy some freedom of assembly and demonstration, though the government restricts this from time to time. In March, thousands demonstrated in major cities across Yemen to protest Israel's extrajudicial killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. However, in September, the government prevented a demonstration planned by opposition parties in Sana'a against government actions in quelling the Saada rebellion. In October, government security forces arrested members of the opposition Liberation Party for conducting a public demonstration.

The judiciary is nominally independent, but in practice it is weak and susceptible to interference from the executive branch. Government authorities have a spotty record of enforcing judicial rulings, particularly those issued against prominent tribal or political leaders. The lack of a truly independent judiciary impedes progress in all aspects of democracy and good governance; without an independent arbiter for disputes, people often resort to tribal forms of justice or direct appeals to the executive branch of government.

The 2004 trials of suspects involved in terrorist attacks in Yemen were held in secret, and several human rights groups criticized the fairness of these proceedings, saying that defense attorneys were not permitted to meet with their clients in private and were not provided with full access to all of the evidence.

Arbitrary detention occurs, sometimes because of a lack of proper training of law enforcement officials and at other times because of a lack of political will at the most senior levels of government. In May, the Yemeni press reported that more than 50 government security officers were prosecuted for violating human rights. Prison conditions remain poor and overcrowded, though the government took steps to upgrade the quality of some prisons in 2004 and provided human rights groups with access to some prisons.

Yemen is relatively homogenous ethnically and racially. The Akhdam, a small minority group, lives in poverty and faces social discrimination.

Women are afforded most legal protections against discrimination and provided with guarantees of equality. In practice, women continue to face pervasive discrimination in several aspects of life. Women are vastly underrepresented in elected office. Despite the best efforts of women's rights groups to increase the number of women in parliament, only one woman won a seat in the 2003 parliamentary elections, out of 301 total seats. The number of women registered to vote increased nearly sevenfold in the past decade, from half a million in the 1993 parliamentary elections to more than three million in the 2003 parliamentary elections.

A woman must obtain permission from her husband or father to receive a passport and travel abroad. Unlike men, women do not have the right to confer citizenship on a foreign-born spouse, and the process of obtaining Yemeni citizenship for a child of a Yemeni mother and a foreign-born father is in practice more difficult than that for a child born of a Yemeni father and a foreign-born mother.