SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen has arrested a woman activist who led student rallies against the government in the capital last week, sparking a new wave of protests on Sunday.
Inspired by the ousting of Tunisia’s president a week ago, Tawakul Karman led two protests at Sanaa University, criticizing autocratic Arab leaders and calling on Yemenis to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh by using text messages and emails.
A security source said Karman, a member of the Islamist party Islah, was arrested by order of the General Prosecution Office.
Police stopped Karman on her way home early on Sunday and charged her with organizing unlicensed demonstrations without permission, said her husband Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, who was with her.
“I have no accurate information about her whereabouts,” Nehmi told Reuters by phone. “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”
After Karman’s arrest, several hundred students gathered outside Sanaa University, demanding her release.
Riot police beat up two TV cameramen filming the protests and confiscated their cameras, a Reuters eyewitness said. One was briefly arrested.
Some 50-60 policemen armed with shields and batons stopped the crowd, chanting “release the prisoners”, from marching toward the general prosecutors’ office, the witness said.
Karman, who heads the Yemeni activist group Women Journalists Without Chains, had also called on Yemenis to support the Tunisian people.
The overthrow of the Tunisian president was a political earthquake that has shattered the image of oppressive, military-backed Arab rulers as immune to popular discontent.
Saleh has ruled Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, for over three decades, his cash-strapped government challenged by rebellions in the north and south and by spreading al Qaeda militancy.
He is also struggling to lift Yemen out of entrenched poverty despite small and decreasing oil production and an increasingly severe shortage of water. More than 40 percent of the 23 million people live on under $2 a day and almost a third suffer from chronic hunger.
Hundreds of protesters in Sanaa last week held signs reading: “Leave before you are forced to leave.”
Thousands demonstrated in the south on Thursday to show their rejection of political reforms proposed by the government, including a limit on presidential terms, which they said did not go far enough.
Tunisia is grappling with the fallout from the overthrow of long-time President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia after weeks of violent unrest driven by social grievances.
Writing by Martin Dokoupil and Martina Fuchs, editing by Tim Pearce