Yemeni Immunity Law Promotes Democratic Culture

Article Summary
As a nascent democracy, Yemen still lacks the culture of understanding and respect necessary for a stable transfer of power, writes Ibad Mohammad al-Anassi. That said, he argues that the Yemeni Parliament’s vote to grant former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his inner circle legal immunity is a step towards fostering a culture of democracy.

Democracy is about peaceful transitions of power [between political actors]. Since the beginning of the Yemeni political crisis, there have been some calling for a peaceful transfer of power in line with the Yemeni Constitution, drafted in 1990. Although this was the first democratic Yemeni Constitution, the country has not witnessed a peaceful transfer of power for the past 20 years. However, one of the most important outcomes of the 20-year-old Yemeni democratic system is increased awareness among the people of democratic principles. [This awareness is present], even if it has not sufficed to turn us into a society that deals positively with the concept of a peaceful transfer of power as is done in established democratic societies.

In 2011, all [Yemenis] - the opposition and the loyalists - agreed on the need for change. The disagreement was over the mechanism. Finally, the Gulf Initiative came about and was amended to ultimately facilitate, according to the constitution, the inevitable peaceful change. But this [amended Gulf Initiative] included a contentious point. Some viewed it negatively while others considered it to be critical for a peaceful transfer of power. This point was voted upon in parliament today, January 21, 2012. It dealt with granting immunity to President [Ali Abdullah Saleh] and to those who worked for him.

Of course, the president is a person like any other: He makes good and bad decisions. This is also the case in countries with established democracies. However, Yemen makes more mistakes than established democracies because our democratic system is still young. Our system is plagued by a number of faults that weaken our institutions' ability to minimize mistakes.

In advanced democracies, the president makes good and bad decisions, and many people disagree with him. At the end of a president's constitutional term, a new president is elected, and power is transferred peacefully. Regardless of his mistakes, the former president maintains a certain status and society treats him with respect and appreciation. The new political leadership welcomes his advice and help in implementing its [own new] policies.

But in our world - the third world - there is only a weak precedent for the peaceful transfer of power. [In Yemen], some of those who disagree with the former president's policies have insulted him, attempting to expel him in humiliation and demanding that he be tried and jailed. The [people] immediately judged him to be a murderer and a thief, as well as an oppressor who punished without due process.

For the people to issue such verdicts is undemocratic. [Democracy] is based on the separation of the legislative, judicial and executive branches. The judicial authorities have no one above them and no one in society has the right to attack [these authorities], because the people cannot achieve justice by themselves. Justice requires a proper set of procedures and defined fact-finding means, while [in Yemen] false information can stir people to issue [premature] verdicts. This is not the way to achieve justice and equality. Justice is about presuming that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, no matter the charges against them. But the culture [of judging others without recourse to the judicial system] still dominates our society. It is an obstacle for the transition to a democratic state based on the peaceful transfer of power. Therefore, in my opinion, [strengthening the democratic culture] is one of the most important reasons behind the parliament’s vote in favor of immunity for the president and his circle.

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