x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Justice for Hassan will show if Yemen has really changed

A killing by the nephew of a powerful tribal sheikh is a test of Yemeni justice

In the mid 1950s, the famous Adeni poet Lutfi Jaafar Amaan wrote: "In the meadow of impossible, we will plant the happiness and hopes of a generation". Six decades later, his grandson would be shot dead in a killing that diminishes what little hope remains for his generation.

On May 15 this year, Amaan's grandson, Hassan, 20, and his friend Khaled, 21, were shot in cold blood as they attempted to pass a wedding procession.

It is customary to allow a procession to pass without interruption. The young men's innocent defiance of this custom cost them their lives because the procession they passed was linked to a powerful political and tribal figure.

For years, powerful men - be they businessmen, politicians, or tribesmen - robbed citizens of their right to justice and cost thousands their lives. The former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, allowed influential corrupt men to do as they please with no accountability.

Numerous stories and personal experiences of injustices at the hands of people linked to the government prompted many to participate in the 2011 uprising, demanding justice and the rule of law.

While tribal law provided order and security for communities outside the government eye for hundreds of years, some powerful and corrupt individuals had been given a green light by the government to do as they please.

Many young revolutionaries dreamed of a new Yemen where the law is upheld and all citizens would be treated equally. Hope was placed in the hands of the national unity government and the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

Yet, for many the case of Hassan and Khaled crushed their faith in the transitional process.

"They call this the new Yemen. How is it new when everything is the same?" said Ali, a taxi driver and education ministry employee.

"Corruption is still there, except instead of only one group of people stealing, now you have many."

The person who is accused of killing Hassan and Khaled was identified as a nephew of Sheikh Ali Abd rabbou Al Awadhi, a powerful tribal sheikh, an NDC delegate and high-ranking member of the Islamist Islah party.

This case has been widely publicised. To many, this case resembles the fate of Yemen.

As writer Salah Al Dakkak put it: "It is not simply an act against a citizen, it is an act against citizenship."

Most importantly, it has become the test for the performance of the transitional government.

Three months after Hassan and Khaled died, their killer has not been arrested and a file for the case has not even been officially opened in the Ministry of Interior.

Every day that passes without justice for Hassan and Khaled is a day where the NDC loses its credibility in the eyes of the people. Sheikh Al Awadhi remains a member of the NDC.

At a time when revolutionaries hoped for a complete change in the system and a break from the past's legacy of mass violations, this case has not only enshrined impunity in national law, but also in the psyche of Yemeni citizens.

"Some are demanding my arrest, as if I am the killer, while those who engaged in mass murder enjoy freedom and immunity," said Sheikh Al Awadhi in a statement he released to media.

The immunity law he is referring to was stipulated in the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) transfer of power deal in return for Mr Saleh's resignation, protecting him and his aides from prosecution for "political crimes" during his rule.

The GCC agreement also requires steps on transitional justice and "measures to ensure that violations of human rights and humanitarian law do not occur in the future". A law on Transitional Justice (TJ) and National Reconciliation has been under discussion since February last year but the cabinet failed to reach consensus on it and the law is currently with President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi awaiting approval.

The draft law provides for truth commissions to determine reparations, ranging from material compensation to apologies and memorials. It would also have the authority to compel testimony or the release of documents, and would publish draft reports inviting comments from civil society organisations and the public at large.

These are positive steps that provide some hope but major concerns remain. Will President Hadi and members of the current government, who were part of the old regime, allow for the commission to investigate crimes that occurred while they were officials in the previous government?

According to the lawyer Haykal Bafana: "Transitional Justice is the mirror image of the immunity clause. What the TJ bill requires is an explicit acceptance by the victims of the immunity law that was approved by Yemen's parliament last year."

In effect, victims can seek justice through the TJ law but it will still be subservient to the immunity law and the GCC deal.

Another major question is that of implementation. Too often in countries where the rule of law is ignored, legislation provides decent protection for citizens, but implementation is lacking. Many fear that the transitional justice law will remain ink on paper, never to be implemented.

Despite these negative trends, local community-based initiatives are on the rise. "No one is above the law" flyers that have decorated many cars in major cities around the country. Letters have been delivered to officials through street protests demanding justice for Hassan and Khaled.

The two men's families are vowing to pursue real justice - but to do so with words as weapons rather than responding with arms for arms or blood for blood.

 

Atiaf Zaid Alwazir is a writer and researcher based in Sanaa