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Arab Spring justice – but a free pass for Yemen's Saleh

Under a plan backed by Obama and Saudi Arabia, Yemen's interim cabinet agreed Sunday to amnesty for President Ali Abdullah Saleh in return for him stepping down. But democracy can't take root without rule of law.

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    Yemeni protestors chant slogans Jan. 8 during a march to the capital Sanaa demanding the prosecution of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The banner in Arabic, right, reads, "save the revolution." The men's head bands read "pride," and painting on their chests reads "life and dignity will come."
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Important history sometimes slips by unnoticed, even when it reflects well on humanity’s progress. Take, for example, the number of former dictators brought to relatively independent courts of justice on charges of corruption or human-rights crimes. In the past two decades, the number has been more than 70.

But this global momentum toward righting the wrongs of the past may not be the case in Yemen.

In that small state on the Arabian Peninsula, an interim cabinet agreed Sunday to grant immunity to its longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in exchange for him stepping down – even though his forces have killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters since March.

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President Saleh, like most other rulers challenged by Arab Spring protests, has been difficult to remove from power. In Tunisia, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced into exile a year ago. After that, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled and put on trial in his country. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces.

Next month, Saleh is expected to be the fourth Arab leader forced from office – but the only one allowed to live in his country without being tried for alleged abuses.

His exit was negotiated last November in a plan designed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others. But Yemen’s interim cabinet, half of which includes opposition leaders, went far beyond the original plan promising Saleh a pass from prosecution. The cabinet also granted immunity to “all government, civil and military departments” during his 33-year rule.

Justice for Yemen’s recent victims won’t be possible if that’s the case, even if a democracy takes root. Protesters are crying foul, although their attention is focused more on elections slated for Feb. 21 when Saleh would finally lose all official power.

United Nations officials say Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, would be violating international law by granting amnesty to anyone who may be criminally responsible for crimes against humanity or gross violations of human rights. Much of the violence against Yemen’s protesters came from the Revolutionary Guard run by Saleh’s son.

Every country making a transition to freedom must juggle contending issues of justice and forgiveness, as well as a messy process of getting a regime to leave. For Yemen, President Obama and other foreign leaders decided to compromise on justice for the sake of preventing civil war or helping the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen.

The US also didn’t want to confront Yemen’s giant neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which prefers an easy ousting of Saleh just in case the Saudi monarchs also find pro-democracy protesters on their palace steps.

Yemen’s granting of amnesty is important because it may be the model for arranging the exit of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. Last month, the US State Department’s special coordinator on Middle East affairs, Frederic Hof, told Congress that the Syrian opposition might agree to immunity for Mr. Assad.

“If it gets this clique out of country before it takes the country down, is it a price worth paying? It is not for us to decide,” he said.

Healing a country’s violent divisions must include exposing the truth of past wrongs, even if no one goes to jail. Many other newly democratic countries, such as South Africa, have used offers of amnesty in exchange for confessions of crimes.

Once Yemen is democratic, it should at least be able to set up a “truth commission” to probe the crimes committed under the Saleh regime.

Every nation in transition to democracy needs a display of justice to help cement a public respect for the rule of law. Saleh may not be held to account, but his alleged crimes can still be exposed.

For the sake of national reconciliation, the people of Yemen deserve at least that much.

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