x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Treatment in US could turn into a headache for Obama

Analysis Ali Abdullah Saleh was an ally of the United States in the war on terror. But times change, and now he is a deposed despot – to some, a war criminal – who will be checking into a New York hospital and might not leave quietly.

WASHINGTON // Washington's decision to allow Yemen's controversial outgoing president, a one-time ally in the war against militants, into the country is a politically sensitive issue for Barack Obama in an election year.

Human rights groups, Yemen's opposition and the Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkul Karman consider Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled one of the Arab world's poorest nations for 33 years, a war criminal.

And the protesters who helped topple him after months of bloodshed that damaged an already moribund economy are furious he and his allies have been granted immunity from prosecution.

Washington will be wary of being seen to offer shelter to a suspected war criminal, even for medical treatment.

Nevertheless, analysts say that the decision to receive Mr Saleh was made because his departure will smooth the transition next month for the new president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

Allowing Mr Saleh in for medical treatment was not an easy decision, said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

"I think what weighed in on the decision was on one side the advantage of finally getting him out," Ms Ottaway said.

Mr Saleh's absence from Yemen could help promote stability even if he leaves behind close associates and family members in positions of power, she said.

The danger is what happens next.

Saudi Arabia was criticised for allowing Mr Saleh to return to Yemen in September after he received medical treatment in Riyadh after he was nearly killed in an attack in Sanaa in June.

Now the US is left with the problem of what happens once Mr Saleh's treatment in New York is over.

The State Department has said it expects Mr Saleh to stay for a "limited time that corresponds to the duration of his treatment".

"The danger for the US is to be caught in the middle if Saleh goes back from here and tries to reclaim power or, worse, if Saleh asks" for permission to stay in the US permanently, Ms Ottaway said.

Human rights organisations in America and beyond would protest if that were to happen.

The new York-based Human Rights Watch this month urged the Yemeni parliament not to grant Mr Saleh immunity.

"Passing this law would be an affront to thousands of victims of Saleh's repressive rule, including the relatives of peaceful protesters shot dead last year," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Yemeni authorities should be locking up those responsible for serious crimes, not rewarding them with a licence to kill."