SANAA, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Yemen arrested 19 anti-government activists on Sunday, including a prominent woman who led student rallies against the president last week, in a clampdown which sparked a new wave of protests in the capital.
Demonstrations broke out across Yemen last week as citizens dissatisfied with the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh drew inspiration from the recent ouster of Tunisia’s long-time president.
Tawakul Karman, a journalist and member of the Islamist party Islah who organised the protests through text messages and emails, was taken into custody by police on her way home early on Sunday and charged with unlawfully organising demonstrations, her husband told Reuters.
Later in the day, police in Sanaa arrested 18 other activists, including the heads of two of Yemen’s largest human rights organisations, as they left a meeting to discuss Karman’s arrest.
The arrests sparked a spontaneous protest of several hundred at Sanaa University on Sunday. The demonstrators, chanting “release the prisoners” and holding pictures of Karman, tried to march to the General Prosecution Office, which a security source said had ordered her arrest.
But roughly 50 riot police carrying batons beat them back. Police also beat up two TV cameramen filming the protests and confiscated their cameras, a Reuters witness said. One was briefly arrested.
“I have no accurate information about her whereabouts,” Karman’s husband Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi said by phone. “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”
In a speech aired on state television on Sunday, Saleh reiterated an offer of dialogue with opposition groups and said it was wrong to link Yemen to the events in Tunisia.
“We are a democratic country and not Tunisia which had placed mosques under surveillance and shut everyone’s mouth,” he said.
In an apparent move to calm discontent, Saleh also announced plans to raise the salaries of government employees and military personnel by $47 to $234 a month — a good bonus for poorly paid soldiers and civil servants in the Arab world’s poorest country.
The overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali shocked the Arab world and shattered the image that its oppressive, army-backed rulers were immune to popular discontent.
Protesters in Sanaa on Sunday made the same demands that they had last week in demonstrations led by Karman.
“We demand Ali Abdullah Saleh leave, because we have no other option,” said Hani al-Jonid, a Sanaa University student.
Saleh has ruled Yemen for over three decades. His cash-strapped government is not only plagued by rebellions in the north and south, but also by a resurgent al Qaeda wing.
“Yemen has been destroyed by a war in the north and secessionism in the south, and poverty, hunger, unemployment, ignorance and disease. The situation has made it impossible for us to remain silent,” Jonid said.
Last week, Saleh offered constitutional reforms that included a limit to future presidential terms. But protesters deemed the offer insufficient and gathered by the thousands in the south to criticise the government.
Yemen is struggling to lift itself out of entrenched poverty, held back by decreasing oil production. More than 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on under $2 a day and almost a third suffer from chronic hunger.
Tawfiq al-Makhethi, another protester, said on Sunday that the dire state of the economy was what lured him out on the streets: “I’m protesting today because of unemployment, because I’m a university graduate and I’ve been unemployed for six years.”