Interview: Yemeni prominent human rights defender Amal Basha: "The international community must pay attention to the situation in Yemen!"

24/02/2011
Press release
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Could you tell us briefly what the situation is like on the ground ? Who are the people protesting?

Right now, the youth, mainly university students and other supports are gathered on the Al-Huriya Square (Freedom Square) in front of Sana’a University. There are so many tents now, people have been sleeping in front of the University for more than 2 weeks. The leading force behind this movement are the students from Sana’a University. However, other students, youth, and people from various walks of life are supporting them.

What is the extent and intensity of the repression? Could you describe the current power relationships, government, security forces...?

Tuesday 22 February at 11pm, there was a violent attack against the demonstrators with live bullets. Two were killed, and 25 people were injured, of which 3 are in serious condition. One of those who was injured on Saturday with a bullet in his back, became paralyzed yesterday. The government sent security with their official uniforms, who fired in the air, and there were also security forces in civil dress who they started to shoot the students.

Following the attack, we received immediate information from the street. I contacted some of the MPs and decision makers in Yemen and we sent them SMS messages. We hold them accountable to protect the youth because otherwise it will be like a massacre in the square. The security forces later withdrew, but only after killing two people and injuring 25 others.

There have also been other restrictions from the security forces and the official emergency forces. For example, they are not allowing for first aid to access the square to help the injured. Protesters who are leaving the square, are being arrested in the street immediately after they leave the square, they wait for them to pass on the street, and they start to attack and blackmail them. Ten people are now being held in detention, but we don’t know who they are. The ministry of the interior for security has not provided any information. The haven’t released any information, expect to criticise the demonstrators. For now, they won’t provide us any information about those who are being detained. the The security forces are also preventing students and other people from accessing the square in order to reduce the number of demonstrators, they are trying to hamper the continuation of the demonstrations on Al-Huriya Square.

Additionally, we have heard news, and there have been rumors that the government has bought tribes from the areas surrounding Sana’a to attack civilians. The students originally were planning to use the Tahrir Squaren because it is bigger. But the government blocked access to this square and put the tribes and other supporters there. Tahrir Square, and it is now being occupied by the tribes and the supporters of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The government is bringing these people money, food, and tents, and providing them with everything they need.

To what extent are the civil society and human rights defenders mobilised? What is the situation like for them?

Today, we had a coordinating meeting with more than 20 NGOs in Yemen, in Sana’a, trying to support and provide assistance to the peaceful demonstrators. We have established committees (health, information, media, protection), who are present in the square. The youth have already organised themselves but they need a lot of support, they need food, tents, blankets and first aid. The students have been using the nearby Mosque to meet their needs in terms of water, but the government has now cut the water from the Mosque. They are preventing first aid from entering the square, and they are preventing other supporters from accessing the square.

We need the support of the international community, we want the international community to pay attention. We know that people are preoccupied by what is happening in Libya because it is worse, but to be silent on what it happening in Yemen means that we will have more victims and more hindrance of the peaceful demonstrations. Which is exactly what the government wants. They don’t want any international attention, they want to use any means necessary to hinder these peaceful demonstrations. But we want the international human rights organisations, the international community, the European Union, the USA, everybody, to continue watching and to send messages to the government that they should provide protection. What we need now is protection for the youth. Because they are hundreds now, they are unarmed and we don’t know what is happening. Two days ago, a bomb was thrown onto the demonstrators in Tahrir. One person was killed. Demonstrations are taking place throughout the country now. In the South, the situation is much worse, there is even more obstruction of the movement, they have blocked the streets, they won’t even allow people to walk around and they are using force to prevent people from exercising their right to demonstrate peacefully.

What are the demands of the people?

The main demand of the demonstrators is for the regime to leave. But the President has made a very strong statement threatening the people, threatening of civil war, threatening the tribes, calling the demonstrators idiots, saying that they are being manipulated by foreign parties. He said he would only leave through elections. But we have already had three elections, but we don’t get any results because the government is controlling everything, the resources, the media, the security. They play with the election results and use all kinds of strategies to change the results of the elections. So the demonstrators don’t believe that change will happen through elections because the government doesn’t respect the rule of elections, to be fair and clean and just. That is why people are standing up, it is the students, it’s the youth who started this peaceful movement.

Three years ago in the South, there was already a youth movement. They were calling for justice and for an end to discrimination. But the international community did not pay attention, and hundreds of people who were killed, and the government confronted them with force. That led to the people in the South to call for separation. Now what is positive in this movement, is that the call for a regime change has united the people in the North and in the South. And now, all the people in Yemen are calling for change. The message and the demands of the South to separate have stopped and they are joining forces for one demand: Change - changing the regime, changing the system.

They want a modern country, respect for the rule of law, a constitution that respects the community and the will of the people, that ensures for the balance of power between the different forces. These are the demands of the people, they want equality, an end to corruption, the end to an oppressive regime, and the detention of hundreds and thousands of people, to use war as a means to solving problems.

Could you give us the context surrounding this uprising?

There is no culture of dialogue here, the government refuses dialogue with its people. There are so many challenges and problems in Yemen. Everything here is deteriorating, education, health, environment, security, modernization... Corruption is at its highest, Yemen is one of the most corrupt countries in the middle east! So we have a lot of problems. After the war of 1994, many journalists were sent to jail, kidnapped, tortured, and put on trial. Many newspapers were shut down, new newspapers were not allowed to get licenses, and many website were blocked. At the same time, other newspapers who support the regime are getting all the support and financing and get licenses everyday. Restrictions on freedom of expression are getting worse.

Women in this country are not allowed to take part in the decision making, they are not recognized as equal human beings, and are not in the places they deserve to be in, despite their qualifications and education. This is a very discriminative country, it discriminates between men, against women, between people from the North and South... Discrimination is a big problem we are facing in this country.

In 34 years of the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh has not proven that he is good for the country. There are so many problems in efficiency of his leadership. After 34 years, what else can he do if he remains in power? We have tried him as President for 34 years, he has been in power longer than Ben Ali and even Hosni Mubarak, but he saying that change can only be through elections. But for us the elections are a big joke, people no longer believe that elections will change the reality for the people, 50% of the population is poor, 40% of the youth are unemployed, the country is insecure, corruption is everywhere, other services are in a very poor condition.

Is there anything positive happening in this country to make the people insist that Ali Abdullah Saleh continue as President? There is nothing that to bring hope to the people.

What needs to happen in order for this revolution to succeed?

These demonstrators in order to continue, they need support. They need to see that the international community is watching and supporting them. They want to see that more pressure is being put on the system in order for their demands to be met. We don’t want to see more bloodshed and more victims, we don’t want to see more of our youth being killed. The message is clear but the big problem is that the leadership doesn’t listen. People everywhere are demonstrating and calling for the departure of the regime. With patience and the belief of the youth in their cause, which is to change the whole system. I think they will succeed.

Can you give us your perspective on the other revolutions happening throughout the Arab world?

In Libya, the people are facing a very brutal reaction, the use of air strikes, tanks, and mercenaries from Africa to kill the people in the street randomly. It is very sad now. We don’t want what is happening in Libya to happen in Yemen. We don’t want the government to be encouraged by what is happening there. We don’t them to say that what is happening in Yemen is less that what is happening in Libya, so we are going to be more violent and more bloody.

Demonstrations are also taking place in Bahrain and Algeria and even in Djibouti, and in Soudan. In Syria people were calling for demonstrations but the regime stopped it, did not allow it from the outset.

I think these revolutions can be seen as positive, the anger started in Tunisia and has spread to Egypt, to Libya, to Yemen, to Algeria, to Soudan, to Syria... I think changes are happening.

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