In June 2011, at the height of the uprising against Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, an explosion in a mosque within the Presidential Palace compound severely injured Saleh and led to the death of several of those with him, including the respected former prime minister, Abdulaziz Abdulghani.
Accusations flew around in the following months, with reports variously stating that opposition figures were behind the attack, or that it was an inside job. What has been less widely reported in the international media is that a number of activists were detained in December of 2011 by Yemen’s notorious Political Security Organisation (PSO), and essentially disappeared for a number of months until they were moved to Sana’a Central Prison.
The twenty-two activists were largely forgotten during their two years in detention, as the outside world, and Yemen itself, focused on the political transition in the country. However, recently, attention has shifted to the detainees. In tandem with a regular sit-in being held by other activists outside the prison, the detained activists began a hunger strike, demanding their release. The sit-in even attracted the Yemeni human rights minister, Huriya Mashour, and growing pressure led to President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi agreeing to allow the release of seventeen of the twenty-two detained activists, a partial victory for the activists and those campaigning on their behalf.
The case has thrown up a lot of interesting questions. First, a year and a half on from a supposed political transition to democracy, why were young activists being held in prison without charge? What does this say about the true extent of political reform in the country, and whether there has been real change at all in a country where the use of the word “revolution” to describe the events of 2011 is becoming more common, even on the official level. Have the shadier elements of Saleh’s state, such as the PSO, been affected at all by the “Arab Spring”? The case of the detained activists can, of course, be compared to similar cases in the supposedly revolutionary beacon of Egypt, where various activists have been detained on spurious charges. In comparison to places like Egypt and Syria, optimists, including foreign observers such as Senator John McCain, often point to Yemen as a success story, but detractors point to cases such as the twenty-two activists to make their point.
So has there been change? Well, looking again at this case, a few observations can made. The presence of Huriya Mashour at the sit-in, as well as her threats to join the hunger strike, was certainly powerful, coming as they did from a serving Yemeni minister. A video emerged of her telling the interior minister that she was not simply a ‘décor minister,’ and would be taken seriously. In fact, President Hadi’s response to the case of the detained activists may have been partly in response to Mashour’s own presence at the protest. The human rights sector is very important in any country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, and Yemenis could do much worse than to have Mashour in charge of the Human Rights ministry.
The case has also highlighted the growing confrontation that is occurring between the establishment and those actors in Yemen who have remained outside the parameters of the GCC agreement that led to Saleh stepping down. While on the surface the various political factions have been taking part in working committees at the National Dialogue, there appears to be movement on the streets.
The case of the activists comes alongside news of several deaths following a Houthi protest outside the National Security Bureau (NSB), another of Yemen’s security organisations. Events are ambiguous, but in general the Houthis have increased their agitation recently, and seem less willing to keep within the parameters of the National Dialogue. Along with the youth movement and the Southern separatists, they are the main opponents to the GCC deal.
Overall, the argument over the true extent of change in Yemen will continue, with the case of the detained activists, and the deaths of the Houthi protesters serving as powerful evidence that real change has not yet arrived.