Yemen's parliament approved a law on Saturday granting outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity from prosecution, part of a deal for him to step down after nearly a year of unrest.
Protesters and the opposition have accused the security forces, controlled by the president and aides, of using troops and snipers to kill hundreds of demonstrators who, inspired by revolts elsewhere in the Arab world, began protesting against his rule last January.
Lawmakers also backed Vice-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as the candidate for all parliamentary parties in a presidential election next month to replace Saleh, in power for 33 years.
The immunity law, backed by a majority, stops short of giving full protection to Saleh's aides after being amended to say they would have immunity only for "politically motivated" crimes committed carrying out official duties, not for those considered "terrorist acts".
A United Nations envoy welcomed the amendment limiting the immunity, which U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has said could violate international law.
"I am pleased that immunity law has been modified but it does not go far enough. The scope of the law is still too broad. The UN cannot condone a broad amnesty that covers UN classified crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, gross violations of human rights, and sexual violence," Jamal Benomar said.
"We would have been more satisfied if these recognised categories of crimes were incorporated into the draft law."
Human Rights Watch was far more critical. "This law sends the disgraceful message that there is no consequence for killing those who express dissent," said HRW regional director Sarah Leah Whitson. "The Yemeni government should be investigating senior officials linked to serious crimes, not letting them get away with murder."
The deal, part of the plan hammered out by Yemen's wealthier Gulf neighbours to ease Saleh from power, will cover Saleh's entire presidency and cannot be cancelled or appealed.
Neighbouring top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and the United States had backed autocratic Saleh for much of his rule, but endorsed the transition deal, fearing continued unrest would be exploited by al Qaeda's Yemen-based regional wing, seen by Washington as the network's most dangerous branch.
UNITED STATES VISIT PLANNED
A Middle Eastern diplomat involved in the discussions over Saleh's fate told Reuters on Friday the president still planned to visit the United States for medical treatment but would not leave Yemen permanently.
Al Arabiya television said on Saturday that Saleh planned to visit Oman and Ethiopia before going to the United States for a medical check-up.
A senior Yemeni official said Saleh would have diplomatic immunity if and when he travelled to the United States.
"We are waiting for a third country to approve the president's short visit prior to travelling to the U.S.," said the official, who is not authorised to speak to the press and so declined to be named. The official suggested that the third country was an Arab nation.
Some activists said the immunity deal showed that the successes of the protests could easily be overturned.
"We have lost all faith in the political opposition. If they can grant Saleh this kind of pardon perhaps they will pass more laws against us in the future, maybe next time they will pass laws banning demonstrations. We, as the youth, can no longer trust them," said protest leader Faizah Suleiman.
But activist Abdulaziz Sakkaf, 22, said: "It is of course controversial but it is necessary if a peaceful transfer of power has any chance of succeeding. I don't support it in principle, but for pragmatic reasons."
Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman told Reuters that Saleh and his inner circle must be barred from returning to power if the country was to have any chance of restoring stability.
Analysts say impoverished Yemen may become a failed state as it also faces Shi'ite rebels in the north, resurgent southern separatist sentiment and al Qaeda-linked militants who have seized several towns in the south.
A tribal negotiator said on Saturday talks broke off with Tareq al-Dahab, leader of an Islamist militant group that took over the town of Radda, 170 km (105 miles) southeast of the capital Sanaa, after he demanded that 16 al Qaeda militants be freed and Islamic law be enforced in the town.
Dahab had earlier said his fighters would withdraw if his brother and several others were freed.
Army forces and pro-government tribal fighters clashed with the militants after the talks broke down, targeting a historic fort where the Islamists have taken position, residents said.
Saleh's opponents accuse him of ceding territory to Islamists to bolster his assertion that his rule alone keeps al Qaeda from growing stronger in Yemen, and ultimately aiming to retain power by sabotaging the transition deal.