UPDATE: On June 13, 2013, an informed source reported that 13 protesters were killed in the June 9 protest.

(Beirut) – Yemeni authorities used lethal force against an apparently peaceful demonstration in Sanaa on June 9, 2013, that caused at least nine deaths and several dozen injuries. The government should ensure that its promised investigation into the incident is carried out promptly, impartially, and thoroughly, and results in appropriate prosecutions of those responsible for serious abuses

About 500 supporters of the Huthis, a religious minority in northern Yemen that has fought against the government in recent years, had gathered outside the office of the National Security Bureau (NSB), one of the country’s intelligence agencies, to demand the release of 10 Huthis who have been detained for months without charge. Earlier in June, the authorities had released 17 political activists held without charge, and the Huthis had sought similar treatment

“The Yemeni security forces’ brutal response to the pro-Huthi demonstration suggests that President Hadi’s security reforms have had little impact,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It is now up to the government to show that it can conduct a serious inquiry into this deadly episode and prosecute all those responsible for unlawful deaths and injuries.

A protester told Human Rights Watch that at about 1:30 p.m. on June 9, shortly after demonstrators had gathered in the square outside National Security Bureau headquarters, an NSB official announced to the crowd that if they did not disperse within 15 minutes they would be forcibly removed. “We yelled out our basic human rights of free speech and the right to gather, and then said that we would not leave until the 10 prisoners were released,” the protester said.

The protester said that NSB forces then attacked the crowd with armored vehicles, water cannons, and tear gas. Armed men in uniform and in civilian dress fired on protesters with machine guns and assault rifles, and snipers shot from rooftops surrounding the square. “I saw them, some in uniform and some in plain clothes, shooting protesters in the head and chest,” the protester told Human Rights Watch.

Video footage shot by a protester and posted on YouTube shows some protesters reacting to the shooting and water cannons, by throwing rocks and lighting fires with kerosene and gasoline in the square in front of the NSB headquarters.

The protester told Human Rights Watch that he saw NSB forces shoot at people as they were trying to help injured protesters, and at passers-by. He also said that he saw gunmen chase protesters out of the square and down various alleyways, following some into a neighborhood graveyard and then firing at them with handguns.

In an interview with Associated Press that day, a government official said that its security forces opened fire after protesters attacked the building with automatic weapons and grenades in an attempt to storm it.

At least 13 protesters were killed, and between 38 and more than 100 were injured, according to the local media and Huthi sources. The Yemeni embassy in Washington, DC, confirmed with regret the “death of 7 civilians, dozens of wounded and damages.” An informed source with high-level government and Huthi contacts told Human Rights Watch that there were no casualties among the NSB forces.

The security forces arrested 87 protesters at the demonstration, according to the government, and a number remain in detention. A Huthi spokesperson said on the evening of the incident that 24 protesters were in NSB custody, but the current number could not be confirmed. Yemeni authorities should ensure that any protesters still in detention are treated humanely and released if not promptly charged, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers state that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms… In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.” Law enforcement officials should not use firearms against persons “except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

According to local media, the government subsequently issued a statement that a commission with representation from the Defense and Interior Ministries was being formed to investigate the incident. The informed source told Human Rights Watch that on June 12,President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi announced a governmental decision to free the remaining detainees, transport wounded protestors to hospitals in Jordan and fund their medical costs, and compensate the families of the protesters who were killed. He also said that an investigation was underway. 

The authorities should make public the composition of the inquiry and its mandate, and ensure its independence, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has documented other cases of violations committed by Yemeni security forces or where there was credible evidence that the authorities were involved, but for which Hadi’s government has failed to carry out prompt and transparent investigations, take action against the perpetrators, or compensate victims.

“The government owes it to the families of the dead and injured to conduct a credible investigation into this incident,” Whitson said. “This is an important test that will bear on Yemen’s future as a rights-respecting country.”

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