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Nobel Peace laureate says world leaders should freeze Yemeni president’s assets

November 22, 2011
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Tawakkul Karman

Tawakkul Karman

Yemeni rights activist Tawakkul Karman, the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, urged world powers Monday to freeze the assets of her nation’s president and charge him with crimes against humanity in a global court.

Speaking in Arabic and jabbing the air with her hands, the impassioned Karman spent most of her hour-long speech at U-M bashing the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

She drew applause in a packed Rackham Auditorium when she said, “We want a nation that is modern, civil and democratic. We need a nation that fights corruption.”

The crowd clapped again when she praised the courageous role Yemeni women have played in the protest movement that is trying to topple Saleh’s government. She noted that many of her female friends have lost their lives in the struggle in her homeland on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

“Yemeni women are building a new society with their own blood, the ultimate sacrifice,” said Karman, who was invited to U-M by the Arabic Flagship Program, an intensive language program for selected undergraduate students.

Supporters of Saleh say the nine-month protest campaign against the president is being led by extremists who would plunge Yemen — the Arab world’s poorest country — deeper into insecurity and chaos.

But Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, insisted the protest movement was peaceful and would work together to rebuild Yemen if Saleh were forced from power.

“We want to retrieve our nation,” said Karman, who wore a head scarf with a white, red and rose floral pattern. “We want to end the image created by Saleh that we are a nation of barbarian terrorists.”

She said world powers could help her cause by freezing the assets of Saleh and his family. She also said she hoped Saleh would be charged in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

This year, Karman shared her Nobel Prize with two other women: Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee.

During a question-and-answer session, Karman was asked if the Nobel Peace Prize would protect her from Saleh’s violent crackdowns. She said that she thinks she’s more of a target than before.

“The Nobel has provided me with something better than protection. It has offered recognition of the revolution of the Arab Spring,” she said, referring to the recent political change sweeping across the Middle East.

A 10-year-old audience member asked Karman how her children reacted when she won the Nobel.

“When they heard the announcement,” she said, “They said, ‘Momma, you did it!'”

Other hosting units for the speech were the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, International Institute, Islamic Studies Program, Middle East and South Asia Gender Studies Initiative in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender; Vice Provost for International Affairs and the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia.

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