Yemen's president, who is in New York protected by diplomatic immunity while he receives medical treatment, ordered a crackdown on Arab Spring protesters last year that killed at least 270 people nationwide, Human Rights Watch said in a new report Wednesday.
At least 120 protesters and bystanders were killed in just one city that was the focus of anti-government demonstrations, the group said.
The report, based on interviews with more than 170 Yemeni experts and witnesses, provides more detail than the sketchy accounts of deaths that trickled out of Yemen last year.
People in Yemen have been protesting President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year dictatorship as part of the broader anti-authoritarian wave that swept the Mideast and North Africa last year, bringing down regimes from Tunisia to Egypt.
Yemen's second largest city, Taiz, became a hotbed of protest. Saleh's security forces beat and shot demonstrators, shelled neighborhoods, bulldozed a public square occupied by protesters and stormed into hospitals, evicting patients and attacking medical officials, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
"They had tanks and bulldozers. They were throwing petrol bombs into the tents and firing from many directions," the new report quoted 32-year-old protester Arif Abd al-Salam as saying. "I saw with my own eyes a man with a loudspeaker calling on the security forces to stop attacking and killing their brothers. He was shot dead with a bullet."
Human Rights Watch said its interviews confirmed 120 killings just in Taiz, with 57 protesters and bystanders killed in attacks on rallies and 63 civilians killed in shellings and other attacks on opposition tribal fighters. At least 22 of the dead were children, the group said.
It said it counted at least 270 deaths nationwide in Yemen last year but said the true total might be far higher.
Saleh has blamed the violence in Yemen on terrorists. After months of protests demanding his ouster and mounting international pressure, he signed a deal in November brokered by Gulf neighbors and backed by the U.S. to pass power to his vice president. That was 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.
"Saleh is entitled to medical treatment, but he and his aides have no right to immunity from prosecution for international crimes," said Letta Tayler, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.
An election is scheduled for Feb. 21 to select Saleh's successor. As a head of state, Saleh has diplomatic immunity until then.
Saleh said Tuesday that he intends to be back in Yemen for the election, though he is not a candidate, Yemen's state news agency SABA reported.
Reed Brody, a senior legal expert for Human Rights Watch, told the AP on Wednesday that "We would certainly argue that on Feb. 21, if he is still in the United States, the United States should certainly arrest him and bring him to trial" on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges.
"If I was his lawyer, I would tell him to get his tail back to Yemen by Feb, 21, because there's a good chance people are not going to respect that deal outside Yemen," Brody said.
While Saleh has been an anti-terrorism ally of Washington, allowing U.S. air strikes on al-Qaida militants, the United States has not officially welcomed him. President Barack Obama's administration allowed him in only after internal debate about whether his exile would help advance democracy in Yemen.
Saleh is now staying in New York.
Human Rights Watch called on Washington, Europe and the Gulf states to encourage Yemen's caretaker government to revoke Saleh's immunity in his own country.
"The US, and EU and Gulf states should make loud and clear that the immunity is no good abroad and should be revoked at home," Tayler said. "No one responsible for grave international crimes should get a free pass."