Yemen | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2013

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The 33-year reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh ended in February 2012, and Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi was chosen as his successor in uncontested presidential elections. A political transition agreement between Yemen’s government and the opposition set the stage for a National Dialogue Conference in early 2013 and for elections in 2014. Sectarian clashes between Shiite Houthi rebels, the Yemeni military, and Sunni Islamists continued in northern Yemen, while a separatist movement and militant Islamic groups vied for control in the south. Both terrorism and a counter-terrorism campaign marked by the use of American drone strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda militants intensified throughout the year.

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 exercised some influence over Yemeni territory 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 political rights and civil liberties.

In the 2003 parliamentary elections, the General People’s Congress (GPC) party took 238 lower house seats. The two main opposition parties, the Islamist party Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party, captured 46 and 8 seats, respectively.

In 2006, Yemen held its second presidential election since unification and the first in which a serious opposition candidate challenged the incumbent. President Ali Abdullah Saleh—who first came to power as president of North Yemen in 1978—was reelected with 77 percent of the vote, while his main opponent, Faisal Ben Shamlan, was supported by a coalition of Islamist and other opposition parties and received 22 percent of the vote. The GPC was victorious in concurrent provincial and local council elections.

In May 2008, Yemen held its first-ever elections for 20 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. The opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP)—a coalition that included the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah—threatened to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2009. The two sides agreed in February 2009 to postpone the vote by two years pending the outcome of a national dialogue. Yemen’s opposition grew increasingly frustrated in 2010, as Saleh ignored calls for electoral reform and appeared set on installing his son, Ahmed, as his successor.

Any possibility for elections in 2011 was upended after Yemenis launched a sustained protest campaign in January to call for Saleh’s immediate ouster. The demonstrations started in the capital, Sanaa, and quickly spread to other parts of the country. In March, the parliament approved a set of emergency laws giving the president sweeping powers to imprison critics and censor speech. The laws suspended constitutional protections, outlawed protests, and gave security forces the power to arrest and detain without judicial review. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis repeatedly took to the streets between February and June and in September in antigovernment demonstrations coordinated by young activists and eventually supported by the JMP.

In spite of high-profile defections from the government and military, the president retained some pillars of support. Pro-Saleh security services and military units used deadly violence in attempts to break up opposition protests, including sniper fire, shellings, and even airstrikes. Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights estimated that 2,000 people were killed as a result of the political crisis over the course of the year. Tribal groups, urban militias, and other anti-Saleh forces, including rogue army general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and his troops, also resorted to violence to oust Saleh and protect their own interests.

Under sustained pressure from the United States, the United Nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saleh signed a Saudi-brokered agreement in November 2011 that transferred his powers to Yemen’s vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, in exchange for immunity from prosecution for his role in the violent crackdown during the 2011 demonstrations. A unity cabinet with both GPC and JMP ministers was formed in early December. In February 2012, Yemeni voters selected Hadi, who ran unopposed, as the country’s new president.

As part of the transitional agreement, the Yemeni government and the opposition committed to holding a National Dialogue Conference in November 2012, which was subsequently postponed until early 2013. New presidential and parliamentary elections are tentatively scheduled for early 2014.

Throughout much of 2012, Hadi struggled to consolidate his political authority even as large-scale street protests and anti-demonstration violence ceased. Yemen’s political stability was adversely affected by meddling by Saleh and his supporters within the military, unrest among autonomous tribal groups, a restive southern secessionist movement, a seven-year-old rebel movement rooted in the Zaidi Shiite Muslim community of the northern province of Saada, and Sunni Islamist militant groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Hadi took steps to address Saleh’s lingering influence within the military by restructuring the army and dismissing military leaders closely related to Saleh, including his son, brother, and one of his nephews.

The United States intensified its campaign of drone strikes against suspected Al-Qaeda militants throughout the year, carrying out 25 confirmed attacks during 2012. The attacks, which killed a number of alleged terrorists along with an unknown number of civilians, proved ineffective at eroding Al-Qaeda’s presence and likely led to further radicalization.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Yemen is not an electoral democracy. Elections have been marred by flaws including vote buying, the partisanship of public officials and the military, and exploitation of state control over key media platforms. The original six-year mandate of the current parliament expired in 2009, and elections were postponed again amid the turmoil of 2011. The political system has long been dominated by the ruling GPC party, and there are few limits on the authority of the executive branch. 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.

Yemen’s relatively well-developed and experienced opposition parties have historically been able to wring some concessions from the government.

Corruption is endemic. Despite 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 executive authorities. Yemen was ranked 156 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government does not respect freedoms of expression and the press. 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.” The state maintains a monopoly over terrestrial television and radio. Yemen’s most popular newspaper, Al-Ayyam, was forcibly closed by the government in 2009 and remained closed in 2012. Al-Ayyam and other publications had been targeted for their reporting on the southern secessionist movement. The crisis of 2011 led to multiple raids or attacks by progovernment forces on various news outlets, including the bureaus of foreign satellite television broadcasters like Al-Jazeera. Copies of print media were frequently seized during distribution, and a number of journalists faced intimidation, arrest, and physical violence. Yemeni sources, including the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate and the Center for the Rehabilitation and Protection of Freedom of the Press, estimated nearly 500 cases of government harassment against local journalists during the first half of 2011. The Sanaa-based Freedom Foundation recorded accounts of dozens of attacks against journalists in the first half of 2012. In a controversial case, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who was arrested and convicted in 2011 of allegedly having ties to Al-Qaeda, remained imprisoned in 2012 despite having been pardoned by then-president Saleh shortly after his conviction. His continued imprisonment is the result of pressure from the U.S. government; Shaye had reported on American responsibility for military strikes that killed civilians. Access to the internet is not widespread, and the authorities block websites they deem offensive.

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 religious 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 at universities.

Yemenis have historically enjoyed some freedom of assembly, with periodic restrictions and sometimes deadly interventions by the government. The 2011 protest movement posed a serious challenge to the government’s tolerance for public dissent. In spite of brutal violence, protesters persisted in taking to the streets, and continuously occupied certain locations in the capital and other major cities. Over the past four years, southern Yemenis have mounted growing protests to challenge the government’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 in the past called for secession by the south, although several of the movement’s leaders agreed to participate in the National Dialogue Conference now set for 2013. Smaller protests continued in 2012 mostly against U.S. policy and influence in the country. In September, hundreds of protestors stormed the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in response to the Islamophobic film, “The Innocence of Muslims.”

Freedom of association is constitutionally guaranteed. Several thousand nongovernmental organizations work in the country, although their ability to operate is restricted in practice. The law acknowledges the right of workers to form and join trade unions, but some critics claim that the government and ruling party elements have increased 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. In February 2012, employees at the state-owned oil company PetroMasila staged a short strike demanding pay owed to them by the government. The work stoppage temporarily interrupted the production of around 160,000 barrels of oil a day.

The judiciary is nominally independent, but 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 is partly the result of inadequate training for law enforcement officers and a lack of political will on the part of senior government officials 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. As part of the November 2011 agreement for him to step down from power, Ali Abdullah Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution for his role in the country’s deadly crackdown in 2011.

Yemen is relatively ethnically and racially homogeneous. However, the Akhdam, a small minority group, live in poverty and face social discrimination. Several years of sectarian strife continued in 2012 with repeated clashes in northern Yemen throughout the year between Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Islamists, often backed by the state as well as by Saudi Arabia. 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 discrimination in several aspects of life. A woman must obtain permission from her husband or father to receive a passport and travel abroad, cannot confer citizenship on a foreign-born spouse, and can transfer Yemeni citizenship to their children only in special circumstances. 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. 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.