President Saleh of Yemen seems to be on a medical farewell tour, says Dan Poulton. First Saudi Arabia, now the US...but is the end at hand?
Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently in the US for ‘a short-term private medical visit’, despite President Barack Obama’s 2011 Directive On Mass Atrocities which 'explicitly bars entry into the United States of persons who organize or participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of human rights.'
Saleh is guilty of all of these things. He has deliberately fed false information to the US in order to use their drone strikes to pick off his political opponents. In the words of one former US official, Obama's administration was 'too susceptible to the Yemenis saying, “Oh, that's a bad guy, you go get him.” And it's a political bad guy—it's not a real bad, bad guy.'
His crackdown on Yemen's revolutionaries has led to hundreds of deaths, and regime forces have deliberately attacked medical facilities for treating the wounded.
One horrific video from November shows a young boy, a gaping hole where his nose should be, carried through a panicked crowd. As he is laid on the ground, his rescuers try to hold in his exposed intestines. Meanwhile Saleh was to sign the stitch-up deal, backed by the Gulf states and the west, which would ensure the continuation of his murderous regime.
But the US have no real reason to pay too much attention to such objections to harbouring a criminal as his regime represents the fourth front in their 'War On Terror' after Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many ordinary Yemeni’s demand Saleh and his associates be brought to justice. During Friday prayers in December one Imam announced to a chanting crowd that ‘we will not forget the killers and their associates who have approved the blood spilling including so-called scholars. We are here to say that this revolution is against all types of criminals.’ Such religious sanction of calls for justice reflects just how deep anger is in Yemen.
Meanwhile UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar says he is confident that the crisis-stricken country's 'transition is on track'. This is despite the fact that a law passed by Yemen's parliament 'doesn't conform to what we had hoped for in terms of compliance with international standards.'
That is to say that it lets a bunch of killers and torturers completely off the hook by granting immunity to Saleh and his dense network of cronies and henchmen. One diplomat who supported the deal revealed that Saleh provided a list of over four hundred names of people to be granted immunity.
The nature of Saleh’s ‘visit’ to the US is contested. Following Saleh’s departure for the US (via Oman and Britain) the US state department announced that Saleh's request had been approved for the 'sole purpose' of gaining medical treatment 'for a limited time that corresponds to the duration of this treatment'. This of course contradicts Saleh’s earlier claim that he was going in order to help calm tensions in Yemen, not for medical treatment, and will return after the elections are held.
He will allegedly return to swear in the new President- which will be Saleh's right hand man, vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi if you can't wait for the results. Once he returns home Saleh will, he announced in a televised address, take up the role of head of his ruling General Peoples Congress party. How's that for transition?
There are parallels with Jimmy Carter's decision to let the exiled Shah of Iran in to America for medical treatment in 1979. Then, as now, no sufficient evidence was produced that the Shah needed treatment in the first place and Carter's accounts of the event are contradictory. Then, as now, the US had a vested interest in keeping a client leader out of harm’s way.
For once it’s Saleh’s version of events that is the more convincing. There will no doubt be widespread anger against his rule in the run-up to the elections, just as there was after he signed the transition deal. Such anger against Saleh led to the attack on his presidential compound in June which nearly killed him.
Although it’s not unlikely that the extent of his injuries was exaggerated. It’s doubtful that a man suffering from 40 percent burns, internal bleeding in his skull and a collapsed lung would be perky enough to smile to the cameras after signing the Gulf deal in November.
Such speculation is secondary, however. Whatever the finer details, it is clear that the US are trying their hardest to ensure ruling class continuity in Yemen. The forthcoming elections will attempt to give Saleh the veneer of legitimacy. However most Yemenis see through this façade and won't rest until real democracy is established and Saleh’s regime is gone for good.
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.