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Disappearances and torture in southern Yemen detention facilities must be investigated as war crimes

Justice remains elusive a year after a network of secret prisons was first exposed in southern Yemen, Amnesty International said in a new report today that documents egregious violations going unchecked, including systemic enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment amounting to war crimes.

“God only knows if he’s alive” details how scores of men have been subjected to enforced disappearance after being arbitrarily arrested and detained by United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemeni forces operating outside the command of their own government. Many have been tortured, with some feared to have died in custody.

“The families of these detainees find themselves in an endless nightmare where their loved ones have been forcibly disappeared by UAE-backed forces. When they demand to know where their loved ones are held, or if they are even still alive, their requests are met with silence or intimidation,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International.

“Scores of detainees have been released in recent weeks, including a few of the disappeared. But this comes after extended periods of being held without charges, in some cases up to two years, highlighting the need for holding perpetrators to account and ensuring remedy for the victims.”

Since joining the conflict in March 2015, the UAE has created, trained, equipped and financed various local security forces known as the Security Belt and Elite Forces. It has also built alliances with Yemeni security officials, bypassing their leadership in the Yemeni government.

Amnesty International investigated the cases of 51 men detained by these forces between March 2016 and May 2018 in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Hadramawt, and Shabwa governorates. Most of the cases involved enforced disappearance, and 19 of these men remain missing. The organization interviewed 75 people, including former detainees, relatives of those still missing, activists, and government officials.

Families of the detained search in vain

Families of the detainees told Amnesty International about their desperate search for information. Mothers, wives, and sisters of those forcibly disappeared have been holding protests for nearly two years now, making the rounds between government and prosecution offices, security departments, prisons, coalition bases, and various entities handling human rights complaints.

The sister of a 44-year-old man who was arrested in Aden in late 2016 told Amnesty International:

“We have no idea where he is, God only knows if he’s alive. Our father died of a broken heart a month ago. He died not knowing where his son is.

“We just want to know our brother’s fate. We just want to hear his voice and know where he is. If he’s done something, aren’t there courts to try them? At least put them on trial, let us visit them. What is the point of courts? Why disappear them like this?”

Some families said they were approached by individuals who told them their relatives had died in custody, only for this to be denied when they checked with the leadership of the UAE-backed Yemeni forces.

“If they would just confirm to us that my brother is alive, if they would just let us see him, that’s all we want. But we can’t get anyone to give us any confirmation. My mother dies a hundred times every day. They don’t know what that is like,” said the sister of a detainee who was forcibly disappeared after his arrest in September 2016 and who is widely rumoured to be among those who died in custody.   

Torture of detainees by UAE-backed forces

Amnesty International’s report documents the widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment in Yemeni and Emirati facilities.

Current and former detainees and families gave horrific accounts of abuse including beatings, use of electric shocks and sexual violence. One said he saw a fellow detainee being carried away in a body bag after being repeatedly tortured.

“I saw things I do not want to see again. In that place, you do not even see the sun,” said a former detainee who was held at Waddah Hall, a notorious informal detention facility in Aden operated by a local counter-terrorism unit. “They were making all sorts of accusations [against me]. They started beating me… Then one day, they released me at night, they said they had me confused with someone else … ‘It was a mistaken identity, sorry.’ It was as if they had done nothing after all the suffering I endured from electric shocks.”

Another former detainee said UAE soldiers at a coalition base in Aden repeatedly inserted an object into his anus until he bled. He said he was also kept in a hole in the ground with only his head above the surface and left to defecate and urinate on himself in that position.

“We used to hear about torture and say, ‘There is no way this stuff happens,’ until I actually experienced it,” he said.

Amnesty International also documented the case of a man who was arrested from his house by the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces and then dumped next to his family’s house a few hours later, in a critical condition and with visible marks of torture. He died shortly after being taken to hospital.

“The UAE, operating in shadowy conditions in southern Yemen, appears to have created a parallel security structure outside the law, where egregious violations continue to go unchecked,” said Tirana Hassan.

“This vacuum of accountability makes it even harder for families to challenge the lawfulness of detentions. Even after Yemeni prosecutors have tried to assert their control over some prisons, UAE forces have ignored or severely delayed their release orders on several occasions.”

Opponents targeted under pretext of fighting terrorism

The UAE is a key member in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has been involved in Yemen’s armed conflict since March 2015.

Its involvement with the Security Belt and Elite Forces has the ostensible aim of combating ‘terrorism’, including by rounding up members of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS).

However, critics say many arrests are based on unfounded suspicions and personal vendettas.

Critics of the coalition and the practices of UAE-backed security forces have been among those rounded up, including community figures, activists and journalists, as well as sympathizers and members of the al-Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch.

Relatives of suspected AQAP and IS members, as well as men who initially helped the coalition fight the Huthis but are now seen as a threat, have also been targeted.

Witnesses described how detainees were dragged from workplaces or the street, in some cases being beaten to the point of losing consciousness. Others were seized in terrifying late-night raids on their homes by balaclava-clad, gun-toting security forces referred to as “the masked ones”.

The authorities intimidated and even attacked female relatives of detainees and the disappeared who have been holding protests in Aden and al-Mukalla for the past two years.

The UAE has repeatedly denied it is involved in unlawful detention practices in Yemen, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile the Yemeni government has stated to a UN panel of experts that it does not have control over the security forces trained and backed by the UAE.

“Ultimately these violations, which are taking place in the context of Yemen’s armed conflict, should be investigated as war crimes. Both the Yemeni and UAE governments should take immediate steps to end them and provide answers to the families whose husbands, fathers, brothers and sons are missing,” said Tirana Hassan.

“The UAE’s counter-terrorism partners, including the USA, must also take a stand against allegations of torture, including by investigating the role of US personnel in detention-related abuses in Yemen, and by refusing to use information that was likely obtained through torture or other ill-treatment.”