SANAA (Reuters) - A Yemeni draft law granting immunity to outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh over the killing of protesters will protect his aides only from "politically motivated" crimes, a copy of the bill obtained by Reuters showed on Friday.
The draft law - condemned by Human Rights Watch as a "license to kill" and criticized by protesters and the United Nations - is due to be discussed in parliament on Saturday, following several delays.
It had previously offered blanket immunity to associates of Saleh, who will still get full protection himself, but the amended version of the law shields his aides from prosecution over "politically motivated" crimes committed whilst conducting official duties, except those considered "terrorist acts."
Under a power transfer plan hammered out by Yemen's wealthier Gulf neighbors and signed by Saleh in November, the veteran leader was promised legal immunity to help ease him out of office and end months of protests against his rule.
The immunity offer would cover the 33-year period of Saleh's presidency and could not be cancelled or appealed against.
"The law is good - it will ensure the exit of Ali Abdullah Saleh and it will give people the right to pursue those involved in killing and corruption before the court," said a resident of the capital Sanaa, Khaled Hashim.
Rights groups say hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces in the uprising, which was punctuated by bursts of street fighting between Saleh loyalists and their foes.
"The revisions don't change the bill's bottom line, that it still amounts to a license to kill," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Yemeni government should be investigating senior officials linked to serious crimes, not letting them get away with murder."
Yemenis angry at the draft law are still taking to the streets calling for Saleh to be put on trial and U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has warned the immunity offer could violate international law.
The law also ordered "necessary measures" be put in place to prevent future human rights violations, without elaborating.
The United States has defended the draft law as the only way to coax Saleh from power, but questions remain over his intentions after he reversed a pledge to leave Yemen before presidential elections in February.
Washington and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia are keen for the plan to work, fearing protracted political upheaval will let al Qaeda's regional Yemen-based wing establish a foothold along oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
Underscoring those concerns, three soldiers were killed in the southern port city of Aden early on Friday when unidentified militants drove up to a checkpoint and opened fire, a security official said.
The official said he suspected the militants, who set fire to a police car before fleeing the scene, belonged to al Qaeda.
Saleh's opponents have accused him of deliberately ceding territory to Islamists to prove his argument that only he stands in the way of an al Qaeda takeover in Yemen, from where the global militant network has previously launched abortive attacks.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Alison Williams)