BEIRUT, Lebanon — One year ago this week, Faizah Sulaimani was among the first small group of young protesters — less than 30 people, led by the Arab world’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner — who gathered at the gates of Sanaa University to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down after 33 years in power.
Few Yemenis in those early days of change believed peaceful banner waving and chanting would do much to dislodge the world’s second longest serving non-royal ruler, a military man who rose to power in a violent coup and whose recent rule was characterized by a string of wars and the brutal repression of dissent.
“We rose up to create a state of law and order, a real one not just a cosmetic democracy. We are seeking social justice, equality, development and advancement,” Sulaimani, a 25-year-old women’s rights activist told GlobalPost in Sanaa.
“We did not achieve everything yet, but we have done more than the political parties did in two decades. We got Saleh out of power in one way or another. This is a major achievement.”
After more than a year of repeatedly reneging on promises to sign a transfer of power deal brokered by Yemen’s wealthy Gulf neighbors, last November Saleh finally handed power to his Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
Saleh is now due to formally leave office by the end of next month after polls are held to elect his successor, most likely to be Hadi.
On Jan. 25 the UN Security Council is due to hear a report on the implementation of its unanimously passed Resolution 2014, which called on Saleh to step down and demanded accountability for those responsible for the violent crackdown on the massive popular protests that swept from Sanaa across the country.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed the killing of at least 270 protesters or bystanders in attacks by government forces on largely peaceful demonstrations during 2011.
Local media put the number of those killed across the country at more than 1,000 while in a speech to the UK think tank Chatham House last month Nobel Laureate Tawakul Karman said the violent suppression of protests had lead to the injury of some 28,000 people.
Under the terms of the power transfer deal, which was drafted by the transitional cabinet last week but has yet to be voted on by parliament, Saleh and all those who served under him will be granted immunity from prosecution, not just for crimes committed during the crackdown on protests but for all illegal violence and acts of corruption during his regime’s three decades in power.
In only the two most recent conflicts, against armed Huthi rebels in the north and a popular separatist movement in the south, Human Rights Watch found Saleh’s forces had committed war crimes against civilian populations, including indiscriminate shelling and arbitrary arrests.
“From north to south to central Sanaa, the Saleh government has violated the basic rights of the Yemeni people,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s executive Middle East director.
“Yemeni authorities should be locking up those responsible for serious crimes, not rewarding them with a license to kill … Without accountability for these crimes, there can be no genuine break from the past in a post-Saleh Yemen.”
The deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has the explicit backing of the United States, which for a decade supported Saleh as an ally in its post 9-11 global War on Terror as Yemen became the base of operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Washington and some European allies argue amnesty for Saleh and his regime is the only means by which stability can be secured in a nation teetering on the brink of economic collapse and carved up between competing, combustible tribes.
The deal also covers acts of violence and corruption by opposition members and former Saleh loyalists who defected to the opposition. Unlike the deposed dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Saleh’s deal also appears to guarantee that none of his family’s vast fortunes from decades of plunder will be frozen.
The United States and its top Arab ally, oil giant Saudi Arabia, also fear a power vacuum in Yemen is benefiting Al Qaeda and other militants in areas close to Yemen’s Red Sea coastline, a narrowing channel opposite Somalia and one of the world’s busiest oil shipping routes.
For the families of those killed by Saleh’s forces and those who were tortured by his jailors, the amnesty deal is a bitter pill to swallow.
Mujahed Wahban, a 23-year-old activist and prominent poet of the uprising, was captured by security forces during an anti-Saleh protest in Sanaa on Oct. 18. He was driven to prison in buses local rights groups said belonged to the Republican Guards and the Central Security Forces, commanded by Saleh’s son and nephew respectively.
“They beat me and put a pistol to my head telling me to open my mouth and threatening to cut off my tongue or they would shoot me,” Wahban said.
The young man said he was tortured for 11 days and held in a two-by-one meter cell, naked and in complete darkness: “I never thought I would leave prison and the guards told me that I would die there.”
Released after a fortnight, Wahban spent a further three weeks in a hospital recovering from his physical and mental scars.
But as news of the amnesty deal for Saleh began to filter down to ordinary Yemenis, Wahban headed back to Sanaa’s streets, joining tens of thousands of people on Dec. 16 to express outrage at what they said was a gross injustice, protests that have continued to this month.
“This is our mission,” Wahban said. “We are not worried of being attacked or tortured. If we cannot live a prosperous life, we will try to ensure that the next generations of Yemenis can.”
Hakim Almasmari contributed reporting from Sanaa for this story.