Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has left his country and will be traveling to the US for medical treatment. The day before his departure, the Yemeni parliament had approved a law granting him “full and irrevocable immunity from prosecution for anything he did while in office” for the past 33 years. On Sunday, protesters in Change Square renewed their calls for Saleh to be put in trial.
In a televised “farewell speech,” Saleh asked the country to pardon him “for any failure that occurred during my tenure.” He also called on Yemenis to reconstruct the country and enjoined protesters, many of whom have been camped out in tents for almost a year, to “go back to your homes, go back to your families.” Saleh also said “I feel sorry for you and invite you to return to your house and start with a new page with the new leadership,” he said.
Saleh was an ally of the US while in power, assisting in counterterrorism activities against Al-Qaeda operatives. Since Yemenis joined in mass protests a year ago, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Saleh had sought to suppress the protests and lost control of parts of Yemen, which are now under Al-Qaeda’s control.
As the uprising in Yemen continued — with defections from the army, violent clashes between the army and tribal interests and hundreds killed — Saleh has backed out of agreements to hand over power three times. In June, he survived an assassination attempt on his presidential compound that left some members of his cabinet dead. Saleh was reportedly burned over 40 percent of his body (initial reports had said he was only “lightly” wounded) and taken to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, although Yemenis were at first unsure if he was actually there or not.
Last November, Saleh finally signed a deal to transfer power and handed over some of his duties to his Vice President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Saleh still remained in power and some of his relatives — including his son, who controls the Republican Guard — have remained in positions of influence. Hadi is now the consensus candidate — the only candidate — for presidential elections scheduled for February 21 and it is hoped that Saleh’s departure may provide “a breathing space for Yemen to hold new elections next month and try to make a fresh start,” says BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher.
In December, Saleh had announced that he would travel to the US for medical treatment and then, after two weeks, said that he would not. This time he has indeed left Yemen and stopped first in Oman before planning to proceed to the US on Wednesday. Saleh has said that he will return to Yemen to lead the General People’s Congress party after being treated in the US.
The arrival of Saleh in New York for medical treatment places the US in a complicated position, as it is now harboring an authoritarian Arab ruler who sought to suppress pro-democratic protesters last year. United Nations Commissioner of Human Rights Navi Pillay has said that anyone who committed abuses during last year’s Arab Spring protests should be brought to justice but it is looking less and less likely that such will happen to Saleh.
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Photo of tents in Change Square in April of 2011 by Sallam