(Reuters) - The United States has defended a Yemeni draft law that would grant outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity from prosecution over the killing of protesters during an uprising against his rule, despite criticism from the United Nations.
Yemen's cabinet proposed the law on Sunday to speed Saleh's exit from office in line with a Gulf-brokered plan to end protests that paralyzed the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state for most of 2011.
"The immunity provisions were negotiated as part of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) deal to get Saleh to leave power. They have to be codified in law," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters at her daily briefing on Monday.
"This is part and parcel of giving these guys confidence that their era is over and it's time for Yemen to be able to move forward towards a democratic future," she added.
Rights groups say hundreds of protesters have been killed during the uprising.
More than a month since the Gulf deal was clinched, Yemenis angry at the immunity offer are still taking to the streets, calling for Saleh to be put on trial.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said on Friday that a guarantee of immunity to Saleh and his aides may violate international law, undermining the Gulf initiative.
Rights group Amnesty International also urged the Yemeni parliament to reject the law.
"This is a smack in the face for justice, made all the more glaring by the fact that protesters have been calling for an end to impunity since mass protests began in early 2011. The Yemeni parliament ought to reject this outright," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's interim director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.
Under the Gulf deal, Saleh's General People's Congress party (GPC) and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) agreed to divide up cabinet posts between them, forming a national unity government to lead the country towards presidential elections in February.
The United States and Saudi Arabia are keen for the plan to work, fearing that a power vacuum in Yemen gives Islamist militants suspected of links to al Qaeda space to thrive alongside a key shipping strait, the Red Sea.
Saleh signed the deal in November, having backed out of it three times before, but questions remain over the intentions of the veteran leader, who last week said he would stay in Yemen, reversing a pledge to travel to the United States.
"Interestingly, the visa application remains with the embassy, but Saleh and his team have asked to have their passports returned, so not sure what that's about," Nuland said.
(Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)