SANAA, Yemen — A new law granting sweeping immunity to Yemen's president and anyone who served in his authoritarian regime over the past 33 years sparked fresh violence Monday and brought condemnation from human rights groups.
The law passed late Sunday by the Cabinet just weeks before President Ali Abdullah Saleh is supposed to step down is part of a U.S.-backed effort to end the country's political quagmire.
But the broad immunity from prosecution has only set off new debates about whether it gives suspected war criminals and corrupt officials a free pass or is a sacrifice necessary for the country to move forward.
The immunity would also cover those behind deadly crackdowns that have killed more than 200 protesters in Yemen's uprising – part of the Arab Spring revolts that have swept through countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Should parliament pass the law, a formality expected in the coming days, it will make it impossible to try officials accused of wrongdoing. However human rights groups say such trials are essential in a hugely corrupt country where thousands of civilians have been killed in internal conflicts over the past few decades.
Amnesty International called the law "a smack in the face for justice." Navi Pillay, the United Nations' top human rights official, said last week that an amnesty for those accused of gross human rights violations or war crimes breaks international law.
"Such an amnesty would be in violation of Yemen's international human rights obligations," she said.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets across Yemen to reject the law and call for Saleh to stand trial. In the central city of Taiz, an uprising hotspot, thugs in civilians clothes fired on thousands of protesters demonstrating in front of the regional governor's office, killing one and injuring three. One attacker was also killed when armed tribesmen who support the protests fired back.
Protest organizers rejected the law.
Abdel-Hadi al-Azazi in the capital Sanaa said it "helped the leader of a criminal gang escape legal punishment."
Activist Adnan Abdel-Mohsin in the southern city of Aden called it a "mark of shame."
Some vowed to keep protesting and to fight the law through international rights groups. Others suggested a future elected parliament could revise it.
The question of how to address past crimes is one countries across the Middle East are grappling with, especially in Egypt and Tunisia where longtime authoritarian rulers have been ousted.
Tunisia sentenced dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to 35 years in prison for corruption in June, albeit in absentia. Egypt is trying ousted President Hosni Mubarak and a number of his associates on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters. And Libya's new rulers intended to try Moammar Gadhafi before he was killed during his capture by rebel forces in October.
Yemen's 11-month-old uprising has taken a different path. After months of mass protests demanding Saleh's ouster and mounting international pressure, the president signed a deal brokered by Yemen's Persian Gulf neighbors and backed by the U.S. to pass power to his vice president. That is the first step in a process meant to give the country a new constitution, president and elected parliament.
To persuade Saleh to sign, a clause protecting him and those associated with his government from prosecution was added. Diplomats involved in the process have said the deal wouldn't have gone through without it, and some in Yemen suspect Saleh is still trying to slip out of the deal and stay in power.
The new law grants protection from prosecution to Saleh "and whoever worked with him in all the state's civil, military and security apparatus and organizations during the period of his rule."
Leaders of Yemen's protest movement, including 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, say Saleh and his associates should be tried for killing peaceful protesters. Others accuse Saleh and members of his regime of corruption, saying they have appropriated and sold state land to amass great personal fortunes.
But the law's 33-year reach means it also would also protect many former Saleh allies who have joined the movement to end his rule.
Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who turned against Saleh in March and brought his First Armored Division to protect protesters, led government forces in a brutal war against Shiite Houthi rebels in the north. Rights groups accuse those forces of indiscriminately bombing and shelling civilians areas.
Other former officials and members of Saleh's ruling party led military units and tribal militias that have been accused of killing civilians.
Despite the outcry over the new law, some it was necessary to pull Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, out of its crisis.
Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani said the law protects people on both sides of the political divide and was so vague that it could cover more than one million people – from the president to low-level soldiers and civil servants.
Still, he said the law would save Yemen from future conflict. Saleh and his supporters still have power to start a civil war and could do so if not given a safe exit from power, he said.
Instead of prosecution, al-Iryani said Yemen should deal with the past by establishing facts and compensating victims, not punishing perpetrators.
"If not dealt with, these lost lives will remain a source of conflict in the future, and Yemen is in need of some form of transitional justice to put these crimes to rest," he said.
Ibrahim Sharqieh, a conflict resolution expert with The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, agreed that the law will help in the short term by facilitating Saleh's exit. But protecting all who committed crimes during the last three decades could cause long-term problems.
He called the law a "golden opportunity" for the accused and said it sets a dangerous precedent.
"The regime modeled a bad behavior: do wrong, hold on to power, don't give up, lobby and you'll get out with all of your benefits and no accountability," he said.
"It is a question of justice verses peace. It's a trade off, a universal question, and it is unresolved."
Hubbard reported from Cairo.