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Yemen's Saleh Wants Immunity Before Stepping Down


Now many of those Guantanamo detainees are from Yemen, a country we'll talk about next. It's facing a major political transition. Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for more than three decades and is considered and important U.S. ally in the battle against al-Qaida. But after widespread protests against his rule, he now says he is willing to step down within a month if he and his family are granted immunity from prosecution.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, where she's been monitoring events.

Hi, Soraya.


INSKEEP: There has been talk of President Saleh stepping down before. Is he serious this time?

NELSON: Well, he agreed to this deal that was brokered by Gulf Arab states over the weekend, and at first, it seemed like perhaps this is it. But he's also struck quite a defiant tone in some of the interviews he's done since then. He told the BBC that, you know, who should he hand power over to, to insurrectionists? You know, so as a result, people here are questioning whether he, in fact, will step down 30 days after any agreement is signed with the opposition.

INSKEEP: Immunity from prosecution, he says he wants here. Immunity from what, exactly? What crimes would he be charged with?

NELSON: Well, besides the corruption and authoritarian rule which prompted the protests to begin with, there have been a lot of calls for his being prosecuted, as well as certain family members, for the deaths of protesters that have occurred over the recent months of the uprising. Scores have been killed - more than 130, by most counts.

INSKEEP: And so the deal would allow him to basically get away with all that. Would he stay in the country? Would he leave? Are the details known here?

NELSON: Those details are not known. I mean, what's basically known is that the opposition would have to agree to join him in a transition government, which is something that's not expectable, either, to many within the opposition. And then after 30 days, he would step down, hand over power to a vice president, and then there would be elections within perhaps 60 days after that. But again, just based on what Mr. Saleh told the BBC, it doesn't sound like that format is going to be followed.

INSKEEP: Soraya, I want to remind people it's hard for Americans to get into Yemen. You're monitoring this story from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but that is in some ways not a bad place at all to be monitoring this story. What role are the Saudi's playing there, the big neighbor of Yemen?

NELSON: They certainly are a big neighbor. One of the family that I interviewed yesterday said Americans should look at Saudi's relationship with Yemen the way we look at our relationship with Mexico. It's a very important neighbor. A lot of strife spills over the borders there. There have been disputes over the borders there, as well. Certainly, the fight against al-Qaida is something that has now moved to Yemen.

INSKEEP: Well, how large a role have the Saudis played in brokering this deal that may be coming together, here?

NELSON: Well, certainly they are I mean, arguably, the key player here - I mean, they're the dominant factor in the GCC, or Gulf Cooperation Council, which is the one that offered this deal to Mr. Saleh. And they also have provided a lot of funding to Yemen and had sort of dangled the carrot of making Yemen a full partner within the GCC. Right now, they're an observer. And so it's something that is very important here. They certainly don't want any of the insecurity and strife spilling back into Saudi Arabia if no government remains in charge there.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the Saudi Arabia, monitoring the evolving situation in Yemen.

Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.