Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, lawyers work to support those organizing on-the-ground; to mobilize the legal community; and to bring about systemic change. In Lawyering for Change, TIMEP’s Legal Unit conducts a series of interviews with lawyers, legal practitioners, and academics who explore the role that lawyers have played throughout the region’s protest movements and revolutions over the last decade.
In this Q&A on Yemen, the Legal Unit speaks to Yemeni lawyer Bonyan Jamal, who is currently a lawyer with Mwatana for Human Rights in its accountability unit.
TIMEP: In January 2011, peaceful demonstrations began in Yemen around the same time protests were ongoing across the MENA region. What role did lawyers play in and around these protests and/or in support of the protesters themselves?
BJ: There are three main types of roles to look at here. The first was the presence of the Yemeni Lawyers Syndicate (YLS) tent at Change Square in Yemen’s capital Sana’a when protests first began. It played an important role in raising awareness on Yemeni law and the rights of protesters among all of the different entities that joined the protests. The role that the syndicate and other entities and individuals played in this regard was commonly known as “the biggest training course in Yemen.”
The second was the role lawyers played after the crimes committed in Change Square. There were committees established to file lawsuits on the violations that happened at the square during the revolution, one of which was the “Friday of Dignity” incident, where dozens of peaceful protestors were killed by snipers. Is it important to mention Hassan al-Dawla, a brilliant lawyer who was assassinated shortly after the revolution in 2012. It was widely believed that his assassination was directly connected to his work on the Friday of Dignity file. Al-Dawla was, at the time, one of the members of the prosecuting body and deputy head of the committee established for this case. Lawyers like Al-Dawla were threatened and intimidated throughout the process of seeking justice in the transitional period.
The third role was through the participation of lawyers and judges in the National Dialogue in Yemen that took place in 2012, which resulted in what we call the National Dialogue Outcomes Document and the New Draft Constitution, both of which were huge leaps for the betterment of the legal regime in Yemen, and were also inclusive.
TIMEP: As developments on the ground in Yemen changed in the months and years following, as violence intensified, as militias exercised control, and as foreign powers intervened, how did the role of lawyers’ change?
BJ: As the violence increased and the role of the state disappeared, the application of the law and the role of justice institutions took a huge hit. The legal system in Yemen was already corrupt, biased, and both intentionally and unintentionally slow. It was and still is a tool used by authorities to support suppression of any opposition—which has only increased after the 2014 control of the capital Sana’a by the Houthis (Ansarullah) and the widespread presence of armed militias.
There was a spot of light in Sana’a for a short while in 2015 and early 2016, based on my visits and contact with the Yemeni courts and legal system generally. At the time, the courts, judges, and prosecutors’ offices were entirely ignored by the Houthis (Ansarullah), which gave certain autonomy to some judges to operate lawfully. The Houthis at the time were creating parallel committees and authorities to do the work of the legal system, which made lawyers push forward on cases that they had not dared to speak about before that time, and those included cases of torture against security officials.
This unfortunately did not last long; when the de facto authorities realized that these committees could never replace the justice system, they turned their attention to the courts and the prosecutors’ offices and it became clear that some judges had received “the call” from the dominant security department, which resulted in so many judicial rulings that were clearly biased and unjust.
It is important to acknowledge that whether it is in areas controlled by Houthis (Ansarullah), the Yemeni government, or the Southern Transitional Council (STC), lawyers are still working, and people are still resorting to what is left of the judicial system. This could be either because civilian Yemenis have no other option, or that they are hungry for anything that is similar to a state and law—or for both these reasons.
TIMEP: What challenges and obstacles do lawyers, particularly those practicing in the human rights and public interest spaces, face as they practice in Yemen today?
BJ: All Yemeni people, with almost no exception, were affected by the war—a long war which has consumed the souls of Yemenis and besieged them in all aspects of their lives. Lawyers, human rights defenders, and activists in general have been particularly under the weight of that war.
The responsibility of their jobs put an even heavier burden on their shoulders. Lawyers working in Yemen today insist on hanging onto what is left of the system and the state. Their fight today is against what the war represents with regards to violence and lack of the state’s existence; all the security threats they face with no protection, all the economic and psychological effects they have to endure fall under that fight.
Another challenge lawyers face today is understanding the extremely complicated legal analysis of the conflict in Yemen, and that includes working under different authorities that issue different decrees and decisions in the same country.
TIMEP: Reflecting on the successes that lawyers have had in the Yemeni context, what opportunities do you think exist in Yemen for lawyers seeking to use the law and legal tools to bring about change?
BJ: Speaking from the general legal aspect of the situation in Yemen, it has become apparent that the Yemeni national judiciary system has failed to bring any sort of comprehensive justice to Yemenis, and the idea of pursuing its rehabilitation at this time is not realistic. But an international accountability mechanism could be the answer to Yemenis’ calls for justice. A comprehensive mechanism that is accessible and that can address and govern crimes committed by all perpetrators within the Yemeni conflict may be the answer to pressure and facilitate peace negotiations, and to ensure sustainable peace that breaks the cycle of violence in Yemen.
In addition, organizations like Mwatana have tried to pursue accountability through a number of available avenues. Along with our incredible partners, we filed a criminal complaint in April 2018 in Italy against arms companies and the Italian authorities responsible for authorizing weapons sales to member states of the Saudi-led coalition. The complaint is at the investigation level, which is a step forward that has given us hope in the Italian legal system. Separately, in December 2019, we filed a joint communication to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the legal responsibility of corporate and political actors from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. We are hoping that the Yemeni file will be considered fairly with an eye toward the potential power of accountability toward stopping the war and sustaining peace.