Yemeni protesters urge female rights activist's release

Students and activists marched through Sana'a holding placards and chanting: 'Hey, president pack your luggage, we have decided to overthrow your throne' and 'Our revolution is peaceful'

SANA'A //More than 300 Yemeni students and activists gathered near the Sana'a University campus yesterday to demand the release of Tawakul Karaman, a human-rights activist who had been leading protests calling for the resignation of the co8ntry's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Protesters, who marched for more than seven kilometres, also held placards and chanted slogans such as "Hey, president pack your luggage, we have decided to overthrow your throne" and "Our revolution is peaceful" as they demanded the freedom of Ms Karaman and other detained activists.

Ms Karaman, a member of the central committee of the opposition Islamist Islah party, was arrested yesterday and taken to Sanaa's main prison, according to Women Journalists Without Chains, the non-governmental organisation she heads.

Mohammed Ismail, Ms Karaman's husband, said a group of armed men "kidnapped" his wife from a Sana'a street on her way home with him overnight.

"They stopped us while we were returning home. They did not tell us why she was arrested. Our house is just 20 kilometres away from the police station and they could come to us without resorting to kidnapping. This act is a test for political parties and the civil society," Mr Ismail said.

The interior ministry said in a statement that Ms Karaman was arrested on the basis of a warrant "for organising unlicenced protests without permission and inciting chaos and riots as well as demolishing social peace".

However, Mohammed Naji Allaw, an opposition lawyer and activist, said he met the attorney general and that he denied that prosecutors issued a warrant for Ms Karaman's arrest.

Inspired by the ouster earlier this month of the Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Ms Karaman has been involved in daily protests outside Sana'a University, calling for the departure of Mr Saleh and his regime.

Mr Saleh, in power for the past 32 years, was re-elected in 2006 to a seven-year term. A draft amendment to the constitution, under discussion in parliament despite opposition protests, could stretch the president's tenure by allowing a lifelong mandate.

Yesterday, riot police created a human barricade to prevent the protesters from getting on the Sana'a university campus. Armoured vehicles were also stationed in front of its gates. Nonetheless, clashes broke out as policemen armed with batons and shields tried to stop the protesters from marching to the nearby attorney general's office. More than 20 protesters were arrested.

"Any protest without a licence is prohibited according to the law and any violators will be prosecuted," the interior ministry said in a statement.

The statement said Ms Karaman was being interrogated and would be transferred to court for trial. It did not mention any date.

Islah, the country's largest opposition party, warned the government that her arrest "stirs up the feelings of the public", adding that the way of her arrest did not show "respect to human and Islamist values". The party, which leads the Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition, demanded in a statement her immediate release, holding the government responsible for her life.

Before her arrest, Ms Karaman was criticised by media outlets loyal to the ruling General People's Congress, which accused her of receiving cash from the West to organise "provoking" activities.

Yesterday, in an address to annual meeting of the country's army and security forces, Mr Saleh announced a pay increase for military and civil servants, amounting to about US$25 (Dh91) a month.

Mr Saleh also denied that constitutional amendments his party in parliament approved this month could allow him to serve an unlimited number of terms. He said he would stick to his electoral platform that said the presidential term should be two terms without extension.

"It is stupid that they (opposition) exploit the feelings of ordinary people and say the presidential election is without a limit. I have said in my electoral platform that presidential terms are restricted by two terms, without any renewal," Mr Saleh said, although he did not say whether he would step down by 2013.