Yemen | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2011

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In February 2010, the government announced a ceasefire in its ongoing conflict with Houthi rebels in the northern province of Saada, but violence flared between the rebels and progovernment tribes in July. Meanwhile, southern secessionists intensified their calls for independence during the year, and clashes between southern activists and the security forces accelerated, leading to more than a dozen deaths. The authorities used the tensions in the south as an excuse to crack down on the media, raiding the offices and arresting the editor of a banned southern newspaper in January. Militants associated with the terrorist network Al-Qaeda carried out multiple attacks in 2010, and Yemeni and American forces responded with military strikes, including a September assault on the town of Hawta that resulted in the displacement of thousands of people.

For centuries after the advent of Islam, a series of dynastic imams controlled most of northern Yemen and parts of the south. The Ottoman Empire ruled many of the cities from the 16th to the early 20th century, and the British controlled the southern portion of the country, including the port of Aden, beginning in the 19th century.
After the reigning imam was ousted in a 1960s civil war and the British left the south in 1967, Yemen remained divided into two countries: the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). The two states ultimately unified in 1990, and northern forces put down a southern attempt to secede in 1994. In the face of widespread poverty and illiteracy, tribal influences that limited the central government’s authority in certain parts of the country, a heavily armed citizenry, and the threat of Islamist terrorism, Yemen took limited steps to improve the status of political rights and civil liberties in the years after unification.
In 2006, Yemen held its second presidential election since unification. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was reelected with 77 percent of the vote, and the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party won by a similar margin in concurrent provincial and local council elections. The 2006 presidential race was the first in which a serious opposition candidate challenged the incumbent. Saleh’s main opponent, Faisal Ben Shamlan, was supported by a coalition of Islamist and other opposition parties and received 22 percent of the vote.
In May 2008, Yemen held its first-ever elections for 20 provincial governorships, which had previously been appointed. Opposition groups refused to participate, claiming electoral manipulation by the government. Progovernment candidates were elected in 17 of the 20 provinces that participated, and independents won in the remaining three. One province did not hold elections due to protests by unemployed Yemenis.
Tensions between the government and the opposition escalated in late 2008, and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties—a coalition that included the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah, an Islamist party—threatened to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2009. The two sides agreed in February 2009 to postpone the vote by two years pending electoral reforms.
In February 2010, the government signed a ceasefire with rebels from Yemen’s large community of Zaidi Shiite Muslims in the northern province of Saada, ending five months of fighting. The rebels, followers of the family of slain Zaidi cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, had been fighting with the government intermittently since 2004, resulting in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of people displaced. The latest ceasefire was already under pressure by July, when clashes between Houthi rebels and progovernment tribes killed over 30 people. The Houthis reached a separate ceasefire with Saudi Arabia in January, having fought with Saudi forces along the border in late 2009.
Also in 2010, the Yemeni affiliate of the international terrorist network Al-Qaeda intensified its campaign of attacks. In April the militants attempted to attack a convoy carrying the British ambassador, and in July Yemeni authorities reported that Al-Qaeda had attacked police in the southern city of Zinjibar. In September security forces laid siege to the town of Hawta in southern Yemen, where militants were believed to be hiding. The assault included the use of artillery, tanks, and attack helicopters, and as many as 12,000 residents fled as a result of the fighting.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Yemen is not an electoral democracy. The political system is dominated by the ruling GPC party, and there are few limits on the authority of the executive branch. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been serving continuously since 1978, when he became president of North Yemen through a military coup.

The president is elected for seven-year terms, and appoints the 111 members of the largely advisory upper house of parliament, the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council). The 301 members of the lower house, the House of Representatives, are elected to serve six-year terms. Provincial councils and governors are also elected. There is limited competition between the GPC, which took 238 lower house seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2003, and the two main opposition parties—the Islamist party Islah (46 seats) and the Yemeni Socialist Party (8 seats). There is also a handful of smaller factions and independent lawmakers. In February 2009, the GPC and the opposition agreed to postpone parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled for April, by two years; the opposition, demanding electoral reforms, had threatened to boycott the vote. In 2010, Saleh and the opposition signed a memorandum calling for a national dialogue. The president also called for parliamentary elections to be held in April 2011. Past elections have been marred by the abuse of state resources, voter registration irregularities, and other flaws.
Corruption is an endemic problem. Despite some recent efforts by the government to fight graft, Yemen lacks most legal safeguards against conflicts of interest. Auditing and investigative bodies are not sufficiently independent of the executive authorities.
The state maintains a monopoly over the media that reach the most people—television and radio. Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law bans 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 that “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.” In November 2010, the cabinet approved additions to the media law, including provisions that would eliminate imprisonment as a punishment for libel, allow the establishment of media outlets without a license, and legalize and grant funding to the journalists’ union; the amendments had not been adopted by parliament at year’s end. Access to the internet is not widespread, and the authorities block websites they deem offensive.
In May 2009, the government officially suspended or effectively halted the publication of Al-Ayyam, the country’s most popular daily, and seven other periodicals for their reporting on the southern opposition movement. In January 2010, authorities stormed the offices of Al-Ayyam and arrested its editor, Hisham Bashraheel. Police attacked the newspaper’s offices again in April, and at least two people were killed in the incident. Yemeni authorities released Bashraheel in March, partly due to his poor health. Officials also blocked a number of websites and arrested at least one website owner and blogger during the year.After being detained in September 2009 for publishing an article that was critical of the government’s and Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Houthi rebels in the north, opposition journalist Muhammad al-Maqalih was charged in February 2010 with conspiring with the rebels. Judicial proceedings began against al-Maqalih in April. In May, Yemeni authorities suspended the cases against him but did not formally drop the charges.
The constitution states that Islam is the official religion and declares Sharia (Islamic law) to be the source of all legislation. Yemen has few non-Muslim minorities, and their rights are generally respected in practice. The government has imposed some restrictions on religious activity in the context of the rebellion in the northern province of Saada. Mosques’ hours of operation have been limited in the area, and imams suspected of extremism have been removed.Strong politicization of campus life, including tensions between supporters of the ruling GPC and the opposition Islah party, infringes on academic freedom.
Yemenis enjoy some freedom of assembly, with periodic restrictions and sometimes deadly interventions by the government. Over the past three years, southern Yemenis have mounted growing protests to challenge the GPC’s alleged corruption and abuse of power, the marginalization of southerners in the political system, and the government’s inability to address pressing social and economic concerns. The protest movement has increasingly called for secession by the south. The authorities have responded with mass arrests of organizers and attempts to break up demonstrations by force. Clashes between southern activists and security forces led to the deaths of at least 14 people in the city of Dalea in February and March 2010. In May, separatists attempted to assassinate Yemen’s deputy prime minister for internal affairs in the province of Shabwa.
Yemenis have the right to form associations under Article 58 of the constitution, and several thousand nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. The law acknowledges workers’ 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. Virtually all unions belong to a single labor federation, and the government is empowered to veto collective-bargaining agreements.
The judiciary is nominally independent, but in practice it is susceptible to interference from the executive branch. Authorities have a poor record on enforcing judicial rulings, particularly those issued against prominent tribal or political leaders. Lacking an effective court system, citizens often resort to tribal forms of justice or direct appeals to executive authorities.
Arbitrary detention occurs, partly because law enforcement officers lack proper training and senior government officials lack the political will to eliminate the problem. Security forces affiliated with the Political Security Office (PSO) and the Ministry of the Interior torture and abuse detainees, and PSO prisons are not closely monitored.
Yemen is relatively homogeneous ethnically and racially. The Akhdam, a small minority group, live in poverty and face social discrimination.
Thousands of refugees seeking relief from war and poverty in the Horn of Africa are smuggled annually into Yemen, where they are routinely subjected to theft, abuse, and even murder.
Women continue to face pervasive discrimination in several aspects of life. 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 they can transfer Yemeni citizenship to their children only in special circumstances. Yemen’s penal code allows lenient sentences for those convicted of “honor crimes”—assaults or killings of women by family members for alleged immoral behavior. In April 2008, the parliament voted down legislation that would have banned female genital mutilation. Women are vastly underrepresented in elected office; there is just one woman in the lower house of parliament. School enrollment and educational attainment rates for girls fall far behind those for boys.