US visa for Saleh?

There were numerous reports in the US media on Monday about President Saleh's proposed trip to the United States. This has put the Obama administration on the spot, since it risks being accused of condoning Saleh's crimes by allowing him in.

The official White House line at the moment is that if Saleh is granted a visa it will be for "legitimate medical treatment" and nothing else. Saleh, however, has already denied that he wants to go for medical reasons. Last weekend he told reporters:

"I will go to the United States. Not for treatment, because I’m fine, but to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections.

"I’ll be there for several days, but I’ll return because I won’t leave my people and comrades who have been steadfast for 11 months."

So, if Saleh says he has no need for medical treatment and the US says medical treatment is the only possible reason for granting him a visa, it ought to be a no-brainer: he can't travel to the United States.

That's unlikely to be the end of the story, though. According to the New York Times, there has been "vigorous internal debate" within the Obama administration about Saleh's visa. This suggests that at least some officials believe another period without Saleh in Yemen would facilitate implementation of the GCC's "transition" plan. Possibly they also think that having him in the US rather than, say, Saudi Arabia (where he went for treatment following the assassination attempt in June) would give them more control over the situation. For example, they might be able to restrict (or monitor) his communications with Yemen.

The counter-argument is that accepting him in the US would send the wrong kind of signal at a critical juncture, especially in the light of the Yemeni parliament's moves to grant him immunity from prosecution. Saleh would almost certainly try to exploit a US visit as evidence of American support.

Even if the Yemeni parliament grants him immunity, it would have no legal force outside Yemen – which raises some interesting possibilities for lawsuits against him in the US. In that context, it's worth noting that Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico, is currently being sued in the US by the relatives of villagers who were massacred in Mexico in 1997.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 December 2011