GCC immunity does not cover the embezzlement of public funds
When he was asked about the assets of USD 60 billion he is claimed to own, he jokingly replied that he had more than this amount.
Reports about the real assets owned by Saleh and his family are highly contradictory, with some putting the fortune at more than USD 50 billion, while others report that it is less than half this amount.
Western officials who spoke after the assassination attempt against Ali Abdullah Saleh at the Presidential Palace last June, placed Saleh’s assets at USD 27 billion.
Documents released by Yemeni and Arab media outlets in 2011 claim that Major Brigadier Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, commander of the Republican Guards, possesses several estates in the French capital, Paris. These include luxury apartments in exclusive neighborhoods, specifically on the Avenue Champs-Elysees, priced at EUR 12 million.
Regardless of the assets collected by Saleh’s regime during his 33-year rule, many Yemenis have questions whether the immunity given to Saleh and his regime exempts him from giving back the looted funds, or was the immunity only from prosecution in murder cases.
A number of people who were met by the Yemen Times said that the funds belong to the Yemeni people. Even if the GCC Initiative granted Saleh immunity from prosecution, the funds must be given back to the people of Yemen, and the regime should not have exemption from returning them.
Ahlam Saleh Al-Maqbool, a Yemeni economist said that the immunity deal given to Saleh and his aides does not include his funds.
“I understand that the GCC deal gives Saleh immunity from prosecution, but it did not include the funds he gained in the years of his rule, so he must give them back to the public budget,” Maqbool said.
She believes that the return of such funds would boost Yemen’s exhausted economy.
“Yemen’s public budget does not exceed more than USD 6-8 billion, and if we suppose that USD 10 billion will be taken back into the budget from Saleh, this means we will have a budget for the two coming years,” Maqbool said.
“If funds such as these were returned back, the economy will recover, many unemployed people will get job opportunities and poverty will be reduced,” she said.
The Yemeni interim government which was formed in Dec. 2011 after Saleh signed a power transition deal, said in its two-year economic plan that Yemen will ask donor countries for urgent financial aid to revive the economy.
This is planned to take place in April in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, at the Friends of Yemen Meeting which includes the GCC countries and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
“Instead of asking the donors to support the economy, the government should take back the funds looted by Saleh and his family,” Maqbool said.
The problem is exacerbated since Saleh’s capital is being invested abroad, and this deprives Yemen from its money being utilized to generate job opportunities, according to the economist.
Political immunity, not economic
Wadea Ata’a, a journalist and activist in ‘Change Square’, says that Saleh’s immunity was political not economic, stressing that the deal has nothing to do with the crimes of financial corruption.
“We must take legal action by filing suits that prove the involvement of these officials in the looting of public funds whether through embezzlement or fraud, particularly in the investment sector, as they take a percentage of the sales deals,” Ata’a said.
“In the military, for instance, commanders steal allocations meant for soldiers and officers using several justifications, particularly cuts to salaries and money for medical treatment,” he said.
“The immunity does not stop the right of the people to retrieve these funds, and it does not stop the families of the killed protesters demanding prosecutions,” he said.
He said the looted money is among the most important issues that should be focused on, calling the protesters camped at the Change Squares to make this an important issue among their current priorities.
Public money for peace
Contrary to the statements above, some people believe that there is no need to raise these problems, and that all people should forget the past history and open a new page towards development and construction.
Jamal Al-Omki, an activist in Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, said people at present are seeking peace, and that the raising of these issues will provoke tensions and conflicts.
“We just want Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave, to live in peace and stability. We do not want more problems and in the hereafter, everyone will be accountable,” Al-Omki said.
“Threats of punishment and the prosecution of killers pushed Saleh to procrastinate on the signing of the GCC Initiative, and the matter turned into one of defiance and stubbornness,” he said.
“If the people had come to Saleh and asked him kindly to resign, we would not have suffered all these troubles,” Al-Omki said.
He stressed that Saleh was not corrupt, and that only his cronies and relatives had exploited his position to make their fortunes from public money.
Popular initiative to pursue missing funds
Other civil activists, however, suggest the establishment of a civil institution to pursue officials involved in financial corruption.
Nada Al-Faqih, a child-rights activist, suggested forming a popular initiative to follow up persons who have embezzled Yemen’s public funds.
“I don’t rule out that the fortune of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family is not less than USD 100 billion,” said Al-Faqih. “This family made us live in poverty and famine and only think of how to survive hunger.”
She thinks that a specialized institution formed with the aim of pursuing the looters of public funds will make it easier to get documents pertaining to the looting, and improve access to the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
“Nobody can deprive me from my rights to recover the looted funds, and have the killers of my father, brother or son prosecuted,” said Al-Faqih. “This is a right ensured by divine laws and international legislation.”
Attempts at recovering public funds in Yemen has been inspired by similar actions in Egypt. There is a popular campaign to restore embezzled public money run by Egyptian activists, who are still struggling to retrieve stolen and frozen money and return it to the Egyptian people.
Al-Faqih said that a similar campaign should be applied in Yemen which was subject to plunder by Saleh’s regime.
Khalid Al-Ghaithi, a Yemeni lawyer, affirmed that the immunity given under the GCC Initiative prevents only criminal accountability and prosecution. He pointed out that anyone can sue any official over the embezzlement of public funds, and that the immunity given does not cover this kind of action.
“As for funds and compensation, the people harmed can go to the court to ask for compensation, as that is considered a personal right, and no one can ban anybody of his right to sue the perpetrators, whatever kind of immunity they have been given.”
Al-Ghaithi says that the demonstration to demand the recovery of the looted funds does not violate the GCC deal, indicating that these funds can still be taken back.
Al-Ghaithi suggested including the restoration of public money in the transitional justice law. This law will soon be approved to allow the coming government the capability of paying compensation to affected people who have lost their homes, properties and have had relatives killed.
“Restoring funds is an important demand, otherwise Saleh and his family will use such money to support armed groups in Yemen to provoke more problems,” he said.