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Yemeni Forces Use Tasers, Batons, Knives and Rifles to Quash Anti-Government Protests

StoryFebruary 14, 2011
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The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have raised questions about the stability of several other governments in the region. Over the weekend, thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Yemen clashed with police and pro-government supporters. Tasers, batons, knives, sticks and assault rifles were directed at people in the rallies. We speak to Iona Craig, an editor at the Yemen Times, and Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have raised questions about the stability of several other governments in the region. In Yemen, the government has been accused of violently suppressing protest over the past three days. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces used electroshock tasers and batons against the demonstrators. In addition, hundreds of pro-government supporters armed with knives, sticks and assault rifles attacked a peaceful gathering Friday. Protesters in Yemen are calling for the immediate resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country for three decades.

For more, we’re going straight to Sana’a to speak with Iona Craig, British journalist based in the capital, in Sana’a. Sarah Leah Whitson is also with us, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. So, let’s first go right away to Iona in Sana’a — what took place there this weekend? — editor at Yemen Times.

IONA CRAIG: Well, we’ve had continuous demonstrations here in the capital, and the numbers haven’t been huge, up to a thousand at a time. But as you were saying, they have, on every occasion, turned violent. Things have certainly changed since Mubarak’s resignation was announced on Friday. Prior to Friday, the major demonstrations, which had drawn greater numbers, up to 20,000, had been organized by the political opposition. But the last three days have seen grassroots protests led by students yesterday and including lawyers and activists today. And yes, there have been batons, taser guns and other weapons being used against demonstrators. There haven’t, as yet, in the capital been live ammunition fired on protesters, but that has been reported in the south, in Aden. And the demonstrations, although small, have certainly turned violent.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, you’ve been issuing warnings from Human Rights Watch about what’s happening, about the crackdown in Yemen.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Yes, we have, and we have people working with us on the ground in Yemen who have been at the demonstrations witnessing the police violence, the police attacks, but also the attacks of people who appear to be government-sponsored civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you saying? What do you understand is taking place, and what demands are you making?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, it’s quite simple. People have a right to demonstrate. They have a right to demonstrate publicly. They have a right to demonstrate in criticism of the government, if that’s their view and opinion. And while the police have a responsibility to maintain order, there’s no indication that the protesters themselves were violent or were causing disruption. Rather, it seems that the disruption and violence was being caused by the security forces. It’s very clear — this is the record of President Saleh and his government — they will brook no criticism, and they will certainly not brook criticism on the streets of Sana’a or Aden.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the tasers, Sarah?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s absolutely unacceptable to be using tasers, which are supposed to be used against violent suspects who are posing an immediate threat, against ordinary people who are demonstrating, marching in the streets from a university to a cemetery or from a university towards the president’s compound. This is absolutely uncalled for. And we have talked to numerous people, really young university students, who have been attacked with these tasers, which is extremely painful and does leave marks and bruising on the body.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, talk about how difficult it is to get news out of Yemen.

IONA CRAIG: It’s not the easiest work for journalists here. The actual visas given out to journalists are restricted, and traveling around the country, you’re required permission to do so. I recently had a colleague who was traveling down to Aden and, because he was going by road, had to sign a piece of paper before he left to say he would do no reporting or journalistic work whilst he was visiting the city. Today, the PSO, the political security here, has approached foreign journalists. I had a colleague who was forcibly removed from a protest outside Sana’a University, which then turned violent.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people do you believe are —

IONA CRAIG: I was also questioned by political security today.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people do you believe have been killed, Iona?

IONA CRAIG: Certainly, in the capital, Sana’a, to my knowledge, nobody has been killed. Down in Aden, it’s a different story. The government is not afraid to use live ammunition against protesters down there. The Southern Movement, which is calling for independence from the north, has been protesting on a regular basis since 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona, we only have 10 seconds, but can you talk about the journalists that Obama told the Yemeni government not to release?

IONA CRAIG: Yes, Abdul-Elah Shaye, he’s been sentenced to five years in prison. Most prisoners have been given a presidential pardon, but as you say, Obama’s telephone calls seem to have put a hold to that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue to follow it. Iona Craig and Sarah Leah Whitson, thanks for joining us.

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