International human rights group Amnesty International published on Thursday, July 12, a report titled “God only knows if he’s alive,” documenting forced disappearances perpetrated by UAE troops and Yemeni militias in southern Yemen.
The security forces, allegedly operating outside of the command of their own governments, have committed “egregious violations,” according to the report, including “systemic enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment amounting to war crimes.” The NGO has called upon the international community to hold responsible the perpetrators of these serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and it has urged allies of the UAE, such as the U.S. and members of the Saudi-led coalition, to refrain from supporting or financing any such activities.
Through interviews with 75 former detainees, relatives of missing persons, activists, and government officials, Amnesty International’s report investigated 51 cases of individuals who were arbitrarily detained, tortured, and/or killed by security officials between March, 2016 and May, 2018, in the Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramawt governates. 19 of the men reportedly are still missing.
Amnesty International Crisis Response Director Tirana Hassan stated, “[T]he 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.” She added, “[U]ltimately 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.”
The UAE has repeatedly denied involvement in such crimes and has rejected the Amnesty report as a “politically motivated” effort to undermine the UAE position in the Yemeni war. On July 8, UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash called the accusation of UAE involvement “fake news,” as reported by the Washington Post. Similarly, the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abed Raboo Mansour Hadi has deflected responsibility, claiming it has little control over UAE-backed and trained security forces operating in its territory.
The international community, including the U.N. has condemned the Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a key member, for previous human rights abuses. Coalition forces have bombed schools, hospitals, homes, weddings, and funerals. According to the Yemen Data Project, around one third of the coalition’s airstrikes have hit non-military targets, killing more than 10,000 Yemenis over the last three years and displacing another three million people.
The UAE began its military intervention in the Yemeni civil war in March 2015. The intervention offered support to President Hadi against the Houthi rebels, who had then recently ousted him in a coup. It initially consisted of a bombing campaign but later expanded to include a naval blockade and the deployment of ground forces into the nation. Abu Dhabi’s involvement has involved operations to combat terrorism in the south and east of the war-torn country, where al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) are known to be active. To execute these missions, it has formed and funded local militias such as the al-Hizam Brigade (Security Belt) and Elite Forces, and has made alliances with Yemeni forces.
UAE-backed security forces and its Yemeni militias have carried out arrests and detentions forcefully and without arrest warrants. Men have reportedly been dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and their places of work of public spaces in broad daylight. Security forces have also threatened murder of individuals or their families if the suspect did not turn himself in. Victims have often been arrested on mere suspicion rather than any concrete evidence. The report alleges, “[T]here are financial incentives [for arrests] and they also have informants who work for them on the street and get rewarded in exchange. They gather names in a primitive way.”
The arrests appear to have been conducted under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Security officials reported that the detainees were involved in AQAP, IS, or al-Islah Party (the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). Amnesty International, however, found that there was no evidence that the missing individuals were linked to these groups and even if they were, the NGO correctly asserted, that the suspects still had the right to a trial. Family members of individuals believed to be linked to AQAP and IS were also targeted as were individuals who initially supported coalition forces in the fight against the Houthis in 2015. Yemeni militias allegedly have arrested a number of volunteers whom they did not view as aligned with them militarily or politically.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the report is the detailed cases of torture to which the detainees have been subjected. Victims reported that “the types of torture included: electric shocks, beatings, waterboarding, hanging from the ceiling.” One victim recounted, “[T]hey would throw accusations at you and it was like you pick the one that fits…. ‘You are al-Qa’ida’ and so on. I would deny and say ‘No, I am not. I am with the Southern Resistance’…. I was severely tortured; it was unbearable, unimaginable. If it weren’t for God’s will, I would not have lived.” (p24) Others recounted that they had been beaten (sometimes to the point of broken bones or even loss of consciousness), starved, denied medical treatment, and sexually abused. One detainee even reported that he saw a nearby cellmate being carried away in a body bag after being tortured. Torture is forbidden by the Yemeni constitution and a crime under international law.
Additionally, Yemeni security forces have behaved hostilely towards those who have questioned or pushed authorities to provide answers. Female relatives of the missing men have held protests for almost two years in front of key government offices, prisons, security centers, and coalition bases, but to no avail. On July 12, according to VOA News, Yemeni security forces violently intervened in a protest held by female relatives of detainees near a UAE base in Aden. These women have demonstrated regularly in both al-Mukalla and Aden since 2016. However, even if Yemeni security officials acknowledge that they are detaining the individual, they seldom reveal anything about his whereabouts.
Amnesty International’s findings come about a year after Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press published a report in June, 2018, uncovering a network of some 18 secret prisons throughout southern Yemen run by UAE and local Yemeni forces.
The NGO’s recent findings, though terrible, are not surprising. The Saudi-led coalition has shown little concern for the grave human rights violations that its forces are committing against the civilian population in Yemen, which U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”