DUBAI (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch on Friday applauded this week's shake-up of Yemen's army and security leadership but expressed concern that putting key figures into diplomatic posts would make it harder to call them to account for potential past crimes.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Wednesday removed the son of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Brigadier General Ahmed, from his post as commander of the elite Republican Guard and appointed him ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
Hadi also appointed two nephews of Saleh who had served in the Presidential Guard and the intelligence service as military attaches in Germany and Ethiopia.
The commander of an armored division that split from the army in 2011 over anti-Saleh protests was made a presidential advisor.
"While shuffling these men out of the country's security forces is a positive development, shuffling them into cozy diplomatic posts abroad where they may be immune from prosecution could take them away from justice," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Friday.
"If President Hadi is to break with the impunity of the past, he should ensure an independent investigation into the role of these men in the terrible crimes against his countrymen."
The shake-up was part of a U.S.-backed and Gulf-brokered power transfer deal signed in Saudi Arabia in 2011, which allowed Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Hadi, ending months of political turmoil.
Restoring stability in Yemen has become a priority for the United States and its Gulf allies, concerned about al Qaeda militants operating in a country that adjoins top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and overlooks major global shipping lanes.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented evidence of serious abuses involving forces under the command of Saleh's relatives, including attacks on peaceful protesters, arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances.
They include 37 cases in which security forces had held people without charge, 22 of whom said they had been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including beatings, electric shock, threats of death or rape.
"Human Rights Watch also interviewed relatives of five protesters, opposition fighters, and others who were forcibly disappeared or held without charge," the New York-based organization said in a statement.
During his 33 years in office, Saleh appointed close relatives to key security and military posts, which helped to ensure his control over the impoverished country.
Since he became president after elections in February 2012, U.S.-backed Hadi has steadily sought to loosen the grip of Saleh's relatives on power.
The Gulf-brokered power transfer deal granted Saleh immunity from prosecution for actions committed during his 33 years in office. The Yemeni parliament confirmed the immunity in a law passed in January, 2012.
(This story corrects figure in para 10 to 22)
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)