Meet The General Who May Hold The Last Card In Yemen

Half-brother of Yemen's wounded president, General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar has sided with the protesters, calling for regime change. But he insists that he will find the power to do it peacefully.

The army is key to the revolution's success in Yemen (Sallam)
The army is key to the revolution's success in Yemen (Sallam)
Francois-Xavier Tregan

SANAA– His men address him with respect, calling him "Efendim," (Sir). The demonstrators calling for change prefer "Mohsen," with just a touch of fear. In Yemen, everyone knows this army officer, but only by reputation: that of a dreaded combatant, and a simple and devout man.

Indeed, this influential military chief, Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who's also the half-brother of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, rarely shows his face in public. In one now famous appearance, he announced to Al Jazeera on March 21 that he was supporting the "revolutionaries." At the time, the movement opposing the president seemed at a turning point.

Much has happened since, most notably a June 3 assassination attempt on Saleh that sent the embattled leader to Saudi Arabia, where he is still recovering from wounds from the attack. Still, the opposition struggles to unify and force him out of power, with the vice president as acting head of state.

Ali Mohsen, the powerful commander of the northwest military zone, leads the first brigade of tanks stationed in the capital. All agree that he could have easily decided to push the "popular and peaceful demonstration" into a direct armed confrontation with the president's men. But he decided instead to deploy troops around "Change Square," the hotbed of the movement, in order to protect the protesters.

His support for the anti-regime movement sparked contradictory reactions from demonstrators. His hands were bloodied in a seven-year-long war between the Zaydi minority and the army in Northern Yemen. He is also said to be close to the Salafist movement, which longs for a return to the fundamentalist roots of Islam. He is believed to have helped the movement establish a foothold in the mountainous regions of the North.

Visit with a discreet commander

Thus, the Yemeni revolution, based on pacifism and political and religious independence, is protected by a man of war and religion. The general has become a very discreet ally.

The first tank brigade spreads across several kilometers in the strategic northern Sanaa, an area largely deserted because soldiers are mostly out in the field. The military compound is a succession of training fields and empty buildings covered with religious posters, offering a panoramic view of the mountains surrounding the capital. Only the headquarters seem alive.

We visited last Friday, where since 5:30 a.m., just after the morning prayer, General Ali Mohsen had been holding meetings in his office. In the hall, portraits of President Saleh are still hanging. Ali Mohsen has always said that official portraits won't be taken down until there's a transfer of power. The soldiers of his brigade are still being paid by the State in order not to add tension to an already difficult situation.

All of a sudden, he comes running down the stairs, jumps into a pick-up, followed by a hand-full of armed men. Thirty minutes later, he turns up in another building of the compound. "Vice-President Mansour Haddi wanted to make sure we will guarantee the cease-fire," says Mohsen, dressed in a light shirt, with no apparent stripes, and a set of automatic weapon clips around his waist.

This cease-fire does exist in the capital. It's been enforced for more than a week. The June 3 attack on the presidential palace triggered a wave of retaliation from pro-Saleh forces on the houses of those suspected of being responsible for the attack. Targets included the general's house, though he had immediately condemned what he called an "aggression."

Since then, shifting allegiances inside the presidential palace have come to light that have given way to a conspiracy theory about what almost cost President Saleh his life. Since taking the "revolution's' side, the general is adamant about two things: pacifism and restraint. "Our only goal is to obtain a change of regime peacefully. Despite the martyrs and the wounded, we haven't answered to all the provocations," says Mohsen, who has lost 32 men.

Even when the Al-Ahmar tribal clan, opposed to the president, suffered heavy fire in the Al-Hassabah neighborhodd, Mohsen didn't intervene, refusing to fall into "the trap of a confrontation with the army." While Saleh, more severely wounded than initially reported is still hospitalized in Riyad, Mohsen believes the revolution is at a crossroads. "We hope everyone will find a worthy and peaceful solution that will have guarantees for President Saleh, his family and the leaders of the ruling party." He believes the president will eventually sign the proposed transition agreement to leave power peacefully.

With President Saleh wounded, Vice-President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi was named interim president and has brought renewed hopes in the revolution camp. Mohsen sees him as a "patriot and an honest man." He asks "Yemen's friends and brothers," including the United States and the Gulf countries to keep pushing for quick transfer of power. "Then, my job will be done (…) I will say goodbye to the people and I will leave."

Read the original article in French

photo - Sallam

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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