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Yemenis Fear U.S.-Backed Anti-Terrorism Law

New America Media, News Report, Shane Bauer Posted: Sep 19, 2008

Editor's Note: The Yemeni government's proposed anti-terrorism law, which is backed by the United States, could worsen human rights violations in that country, where terrorists earlier this week bombed the U.S. embassy that killed 16 people. NAM contributor Shane Bauer is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East.

SANA'A, Yemen -- At 9:15 on Wednesday morning, an employee inside the U.S. embassy in Sana'a heard the sound of machine guns rip into the air followed by a deafening boom. Over the course of the next 40 minutes, the embassy staff crowded into a safe room, while four more explosions shook the embassy walls. Snipers perched on buildings near the embassy shot civilians and soldiers outside.

"People (who) were coming into the safe room were horrified. They saw vehicles and human flesh all over the parking lot," said Yemeni human rights lawyer Khaled Saleh Al-Anesi.

In the end, 16 people lay dead, while the embassy itselfheavily fortified in response to four attacks over the past five yearsremained relatively unscathed.

Shortly after nightfall, police had set up checkpoints across the city. They searched cars and rounded up 25 suspects.

The attacks have been roundly condemned throughout Yemen, and people from clerics to lawyers are discussing how to stop terrorism in their country. But while the Yemeni government asserts its commitment to fight the threat, and the United States increases its pressure, many in Sana'a fear that Yemen's strategy for combating terrorism is going to translate into increased human rights violations and repression of political opposition.

"There have been huge violations in human rights in Yemen in the name of the war on terror," said Yemeni human rights lawyer Khaled Saleh Al-Anesi. "People who haven't been convicted of using violence are linked to groups like Al-Qaeda, held in prison, then eventually released. By regularly arresting people, the government gets to show that it is fighting terrorism so it can continue to get support from the U.S."

Al-Anesi said thousands of people have been arrested without charges under the guise of fighting terrorism. "We are living in an undeclared state of emergency," he said.

Around 2.5 percent of Yemen's national budget comes from the United States economic and military aid, which has averaged $40 million a year since 2000.

Al-Anesi fears that Wednesday's bombing will allow the government to push through a recently proposed U.S.-backed anti-terrorism law that was strongly opposed in parliament. The law would legalize government surveillance, ban sit-ins and demonstrations, expand the political security apparatus' ability to arrest suspected terrorists, and allow the extradition of people wanted by other countries on terrorism charges.

Opponents fear the law would be used against the government's political adversaries. "This isn't a law against terror, it's just giving the government more tools for monitoring political oppositionists," said Al-Anesi.

Over the past year, Yemen has seen a clear rise in terrorist activities. Suicide bombings, attacks against foreign tourists and strikes against mosques have all occurred over the past 13 months. Such acts of terror have never been seen before in this south Arabian country.

Some analysts attribute the increase in terrorism to a rift between the older members and younger members of Al-Qaeda. The older ones are said to have struck an agreement with members of the government not to wage attacks inside the country. The younger members, however, many of who have recently returned from fighting in Iraq, are unwilling to strike such deals with the state.

Other analysts attribute Yemen's rise in extremism to internal issues. "Poverty and the worsening economic conditions are the main reason for terrorism and unrest in Yemen," says Ibrahim Mujahed, editor-in-chief of Yemen's independent daily, Akhbar al-Yawm.

Wheat, a staple Yemeni food, has undergone 40 percent inflation in the past year, leading to riots across the country. Rapidly declining water aquifers are threatening agricultural production, and oil reserves are dwindling.

"The problem is that there is no democracy or economic stability in Yemen," said political science professor at Sana'a University Dr. Mohammed Al-Mutawakkal. "If we had stability and people were satisfied with our government, we wouldn't be facing these problems."

Yemen currently maintains a shaky peace deal with a Zaydi Shia insurgency in the north, while hardening opposition in the south has led to increased unrest and calls for separation.

"Our government, and the U.S. government, needs to understand that the military strategy of fighting terrorism is just creating enemies," says lawyer Al-Anesi. "Dictatorship and oppression is the environment that makes the bacteria of extremism grow.

"If the U.S. wants to stop terrorism in Yemen, it needs to start supporting democracy and condemning the human rights violations that are happening in the name of its war on terror."

Related Articles:

Eye on the Middle East: Political Alliances Shifting Like Sand

A Morning as an American in Yemen

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