SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen should repeal former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's immunity from prosecution and open a new investigation into one government attack on protesters during last year's uprising that left 45 people dead, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday,
Saleh stood down in February - after a year of protests and infighting among his army and tribal allies that left over 2,000 dead - in return for immunity for himself and his relatives.
The immunity has provoked thousands of Yemenis to protest in recent weeks as Yemeni activists put pressure on the government to investigate violations last year.
"Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for Yemeni authorities to repeal the immunity law, which violates Yemen's international legal obligations to prosecute serious violations of human rights," a statement said.
Saleh's successor Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, former deputy president, approved a commission of inquiry last week that investigate abuses committed since January 2011 when the uprising took off after a successful revolt in Tunisia.
The New York-based group said the inquiry needed to include senior government officials, and cited an investigation Saleh ordered last year into the March 18 shooting of protesters as a whitewash that should be avoided. Activists said at the time 52 people died.
The next session of the trial of 78 people in the case is on September 29, but at least 30 of them remain at large, including two senior security officials who are sons of a northern governor. Defense lawyers say some of the men were innocent bystanders.
"The previous government's investigation of the Friday of Dignity killings was deeply flawed and may have been a brazen attempt to shield government officials from prosecution," said Letta Tayler, senior Yemen researcher.
"Yemen's new government should demonstrate its commitment to justice for serious rights abuses by carrying out a new inquiry."
The shootings took place after Friday prayers at the Change Square near Sanaa University where protesters had been camped out for nearly two months.
HRW said after an investigation during which it talked to around 36 people involved in the case that the rooftop home of a north Yemeni governor was the main staging area for gunmen firing on the crowd. The governor of Mahweet province is still in his post despite appointments made by Hadi.
"Nearly all those killed or wounded were protesters hit by gunfire. Most of the dead were shot in the head or chest. The indictment charges 52 of the defendants with firing gunshots with intent to kill," it said.
Restoring stability in Yemen has become an international priority for fear that Islamist militants will further entrench themselves in a country neighboring top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and lying on major world shipping lanes.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Myra MacDonald)