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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.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / January 9, 2012

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."

AP/Hani Mohammed

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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.

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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.

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.

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