Last Updated: Thu Dec 29, 2011 23:05 pm (KSA) 20:05 pm (GMT)

U.S. trip gives Saleh neither immunity nor exile

Yemen’s outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh adjusts his spectacles during a news conference in Sana’a. (Reuters)
Yemen’s outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh adjusts his spectacles during a news conference in Sana’a. (Reuters)

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s request to be let into the United States shows he may now be resigned to surrendering power after months of protests, but gives him no guarantee of the immunity from prosecution that he seeks in exchange for stepping down.

Washington, which is weighing granting a visa for medical treatment, neither wants to nor can shield Saleh on its soil for long.

There is a growing belief among experts that a future Yemeni government may eventually find the pledge of amnesty divisive enough for it to violate that condition of the pact that his disgruntled Saudi and U.S. patrons want to use to ease Saleh from power.

“I think Saleh realizes it’s done for him personally, and he's working on leaving,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh, a conflict resolution expert with the Brookings Doha Center, of Saleh’s announcement that he would seek to go the United States.

“They don’t want to deal with the ramifications of this, having him on their soil, and they do realize the problems of the amnesty,” he said. “Whatever the arrangements now, there will be a view toward demanding the prosecution of Saleh.”

Saleh announced his plan for a U.S. visit last week after forces loyal to him killed nine protesters demanding he face trial for killing their counterparts during nearly a year of mass demonstrations aimed at toppling him after three decades in power.

The demand of the protesters - hundreds of whom have been killed by units led by Saleh’s son and nephews since the uprising against him began last January - runs up against the main element of the pact Yemen’s richer neighbors crafted to ease him from office.

Under the terms of that deal, echoed by a U.N. Security Council resolution and backed by Washington, which long funded Saleh as a key client in its “counter-terrorism” campaign in Yemen, Saleh has formally ceded powers to his deputy.

He retains the title of “head of state” until an election to choose his successor set for Feb. 21.

The latest bloodshed came as units of the Republican Guards and Central Security -- commanded by Saleh’s son and nephew respectively -- opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters who approached his presidential compound at the end of a days-long march from Taez demanding he be tried.

That move on Saleh’s fortress coincided with the start of what some Yemenis are calling a “parallel revolution,” in which labor militancy directed at Saleh’s relatives and loyalists in key state institutions has further eroded his grasp on power.

The interim government, divided between Saleh loyalists and opposition parties, last week formed an emergency administration to run the state airline Yemeniyya, in response to a strike by workers demanding the sacking of its top executive, Abdul Khaleq al-Qadi, who is Saleh’s son-in-law.

In subsequent days, Saleh appointees have faced uprisings in the coast guard, naval academy, flight school, traffic police, a military training division, the state news agency and a Sana’a security headquarters whose commander called in plainclothes gunmen to shoot subordinates who demanded his sacking.

Saleh’s request for a U.S. visa first emerged last month as he signed the power transfer deal, but the recent challenges to his network of influence in state institutions may have made the trip more urgent, argued one defector from Saleh’s regime.

“There is now a revolution within different institutions of the state,” said Abdullah Alsaidi, who quit his post as Yemen’s U.N. ambassador in March after the killing of dozens of protesters in a single incident.

“Workers are rebelling against the administrators appointed by Saleh. You now have military formations rebelling against... the information sector. A revolution is spreading to these institutions and taking over peacefully.”

The visa request has sparked an outcry in Washington policy circles and among opinion formers, including the editorial board of the Washington Post.

It noted the anger that U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein sparked by calling the Taez march a provocative act, shortly before troops opened fire on protesters, and said a visa would imply refuge for Saleh, inflaming the situation “just as Iranian students were enraged when the shah of Iran was admitted to the United States for medical treatment in 1979.”

Observers say, however, that legal considerations, apart from U.S. distaste for its former ally, make it unlikely Saleh would remain on U.S soil for long. A Yemeni newspaper citing unidentified officials has said he and a large number of relatives will settle in Abu Dhabi.

Those constraints leave Washington facing more tarnishing of its image -- already tainted among Yemenis due to its use of drones and missiles to kill alleged al Qaeda members -- over the question of impunity for Saleh, without his final destination being resolved.

Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, in response to questions via Twitter, declined to specify how many visas Saleh’s entourage would want, but emphasized he would visit as a head of state.

“He didn’t surrender ‘all’ his executive powers,” Albasha wrote. “The full transition will be after Feb. 21.”

Michael Hanna, a fellow with The Century Foundation and expert in criminal law and transitional justice, said that status would likely shield Saleh from any legal action while in the United States, but not once his current status ended.

“His coming to the U.S. or not doesn’t foreclose any future processes of accountability,” he said. “His record is his record, and that stands.”

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