December 15, 2009

VIII. Detention of Academics and Other Opinion-makers

Universities in southern Yemen have been hotbeds for the Southern Movement. Students have become activists and organizers, and some southern academics have also taken to writing and lecturing on the historical and economic issues which are at the core of the grievances underlying the movement.

Southern academics and students told Human Rights Watch that academic life, never free under the Marxist state, was now controlled by northerners and tightly circumscribed politically. A professor related that among academics in the University of Aden, which has campuses in several southern cities, the only remaining faculty dean with southern origins was the dean of the education faculty in Yafi’ campus. All other deans are northerners, as is the university’s top management, he said.[198] 

Due to the heavy presence of northern Yemeni military in the southern provinces, northerners, especially soldiers in a study program, make up a significant part of the student population. One academic estimated it at 30 percent, who, he said, get scholarships and positions within the university. [199]  Southern students and academics at the university thus feel disadvantaged professionally. [200]

Yemeni university administrations have restricted academic freedom and freedom of expression at universities, colleges, and schools throughout the south. Academics and students who have participated in the Southern Movement have faced arrest, threats, disciplinary action, and dismissal.

Security agencies are active on university campuses, keeping a close eye on dissent. Political Security has its own university presence, monitoring, detaining, and questioning any student or professor who participates in protests. Academics told Human Rights Watch that the security agencies had set up an informant system, tasking particular students in their classes to provide notes of their lectures to the security agencies. [201]

Students who participate in protests face consequences both from the security agencies and from the academic authorities. A fifth-year engineering student, Muhammad Abdullah Muthanna, told Human Rights Watch how Central Security had detained him together with about 30 to 35 other students, both men and women, on the Aden campus during a May 10, 2009 protest calling for the release of detained activists. He was held for two days, and then ordered to write a pledge not to participate in future protests before being released. Following the release of the students, the university threatened to expel the 15 women who had been detained. A teaching assistant, a doctoral student from northern Yemen teaching Muhammad Abdullah Muthanna, also threatened him, telling him that if he continued to participate in the protests, he would make sure that he would fail and be forced to re-do the academic year.”[202]

Detention of Husain ‘Aqil

Among the academics currently detained is Professor Husain ‘Aqil, who teaches economic geography at the University of Aden. In April 2009, Professor ‘Aqil wrote an article in Al-Watani newspaper entitled “The Initiative of the Academic Group to Unite the Organs of the Southern Movement” (Mubadarat al-Majmu’ al-Akadimiya Hawl Tawhid Hai’at al-Hirak al-Janubi), signed by fourteen academics (some signatories later denied having agreed to sign the initiative).[203] 

Following publication of the initiative, the head of the University of Aden, Dr. Abd al-‘Aziz al-Habtur, summoned some of the 14 professors (nine of whom were from Aden University), and demanded they issue an apology, threatening them with the loss of their salaries, suspension from the university, and a block on promotions.[204] Dr. al-Habtur then reportedly convened the University Council, which issued a decree suspending the signatories for six months from the university, and blocking any future promotions, although that decision has not yet been implemented.[205]

Professor ‘Aqil also lectured and wrote about corruption and favoritism in the granting of land and oil exploration contracts in the south, a sensitive issue because it often leads to accusations against the president and his family. The academic wrote a series of articles on oil in al-Watani newspaper, discussing how the president’s family and tribe had taken state land around the Shabwa oil fields for private oil exploration, listing over one hundred members of the ruling family.[206]  He also lectured his students at the university about oil-related corruption, and even included a question about it in one of his exams for his students.[207]

Beginning in early May, security forces sought to arrest Professor ‘Aqil, putting up checkpoints near his home. A relative said that when they were unable to locate him, they arrested and detained for two weeks his 13-year-old son, Saddam Husain ‘Aqil, instead. Saddam “went out of the house to get some things, and they arrested him as a hostage. They kept him in detention for two weeks at the Tuban police station, together with two other detainees of about the same age.”[208] On June 7, Professor ‘Aqil was detained at the Aden University campus. He has since been transferred to the custody of Political Security in San’a. His trial began on October 10 on charges of “inciting sedition and hatred culture among the society,” and of “publishing articles which harm unification of Yemen.”[209]

House Arrest of Salih Yahya Sa’id

Salih Yahya Sa’id, a professor of sociology at Aden University and a signatory to the “academic initiative” published in Al-Watani newspaper, reportedly attended the June 12 al-Dhali’ leadership meeting of the Southern Movement. A statement following the meeting announced that he had been appointed a vice-president of the Council for the Leadership of the Revolution.[210]  

In early July, security forces surrounded Professor Sa’id’s Aden home, effectively placing him under house arrest. On July 10, security forces detained Professor Sa’id’s 25-year-old son following prayers at an Aden mosque, telling him they were holding him as a hostage to get his father to surrender to the police.[211]  The son was released after 24 hours; security forces told him they would detain his father as soon as he stepped out of the house.[212]

Two days earlier, on July 8, five academic colleagues of Professor Sa’id had gone to visit him in a show of solidarity. One of the academics later told Human Rights Watch how the police had detained and roughed them up following their visit:

There were twenty security guys sitting next to the house. When we left around 6 p.m., in two cars, they registered the license plates [of our cars]. Suddenly there was a lot of security everywhere.
I went with another academic in my car to Khor Maksar. We were stopped two kilometers away, at Jawlat ‘Arish. The police told me to pull over; they opened the door, and four policemen pulled us violently out of the car, searched the car, and took 8,000 riyals [US $40] from me, and 10,000 riyals [US $50] from my colleague, and our mobile phones. They searched us also. They took our IDs, registered our names.... After one hour of calls back and forth to I don’t know who, they gave us back our mobiles, but not our money, and let us go. [213]

A second car of academics heading to the Shaikh ‘Uthman area of Aden was stopped at the Abd al-Qawi checkpoint. All three passengers were taken to the al-Mandana police station, where they were questioned for five hours before being released. [214] One of the detained academics recalled to Human Rights Watch how he had argued with a security official about their treatment, asking the officer, “If you beat academics in this way, what do you do with the ordinary people?” The officer responded to him, “You are not academics, you are saboteurs of our unity.”[215]

Abduction of Abd al-Khaliq Muthanna Abdullah

Abd al-Khaliq Muthanna Abdullah, 32, is an Aden-based teacher and political activist who regularly contributed opinion pieces to Al-Diyar and other newspapers, breaking the taboo of discussing the economic marginalization of the south. He told Human Rights Watch about what he saw as “political marginalization and injustice in the south, inequality between us and the north,” indicating that in his view the south had not received its fair share and that it was his duty to assert southern economic rights:

A lot of resources are located in the south, but we don’t see any of the benefits—northerners come and take our resources, and we don’t receive anything. For us as intellectuals, this situation is unacceptable.[216]

On June 12, as he left Friday prayers at an Aden mosque, a plainclothes security agent approached Abdullah and took his hand, saying he wanted to have a chat, but then pushed him into a waiting car full of security agents who blindfolded him. They drove him to an unknown house that appeared to be a detention facility. During his entire detention and questioning, none of the officers identified themselves or the agency they worked for.

From 7 p.m. until 1 a.m., Abdullah was kept alone in a room, and then taken to a room with an interrogator and another officer who took notes. After a few basic questions about his name, age and home, the interrogating officer launched into a profane diatribe:

He asked me what my position was in the Southern Movement, and began swearing at me, and saying we should love unity, and other such things. Then he asked me if I get paid for writing these things, and whom I knew [among Yemeni exiles] in London. He asked me about my writings, if I really believed this “shit” I wrote, or if I just wrote what ‘“they” paid me to write. I asked him if he wanted to discuss these things with me, or if he just planned to yell at me.

The interrogator then threatened Abdullah:

He paused and said, “So, you are a philosopher!” He ordered a soldier to come inside. The soldier came in holding a head-dress dripping with blood, and an iron bar. The interrogator said, “You see, this is from the person we interrogated before you, now it is your turn!” He started to swear and threaten me again.

At the end of the interrogation—despite the threats, Abdullah was not physically mistreated—the interrogator made one further threat: “He told me, ‘If I see any of your writings again, I will bring you back here and kill you. We brought you here this time without any problems, and we can get you again anytime we want, no problem’.”

Following the end of the interrogation, around 5 a.m., Abdullah was blindfolded again, put back into the car, and later unceremoniously kicked out in the street: “I was told to get up, blindfolded, and taken to the same car, which circled around on the streets like we did when we came. Suddenly, I felt a kick in my back, and found myself hitting the asphalt. I found myself lying on the street.”


[198]Human Rights Watch interview with university professor QAA, name withheld, Aden, July 12, 2009.

[199]Human Rights Watch interview with QAA, July 12, 2009.

[200]Human Rights Watch interview with university professor AY, name withheld, Aden, July 13, 2009.

[201]Human Rights Watch interview with university professors QAA and YA, names withheld, Aden, July 12 and 13, 2009.

[202]Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Abdullah Muthanna, Aden, July 12, 2009.

[203]Human Rights Watch interview with university professor QAA, name withheld, Aden, July 12, 2009.

[204]Human Rights Watch interview with university professor MS, Aden, July 12, 2009.

[205]Human Rights Watch interview with QAA, July 12, 2009.

[206]Human Rights Watch interview with QAA, July 12, 2009.

[207] Human Rights Watch interview with relative of Husain ‘Aqil, Aden, July 13, 2009.


[209] “Court Prosecutes Yemeni Professor,” news website, October 10, 2009, (accessed November 2, 2009).

[210] Human Rights Watch interview with Rashid Ajina, Aden, July 12, 2009.

[211]Human Rights Watch interview with relative of Salih Yahya Sa’id, Aden, July 13, 2009.

[212] Ibid. According to a fellow academic: “The police tried to arrest Dr. Sa’id, but he refused to come out of his house. He, like most, has weapons in his house, so they were afraid. In our culture, it is shameful to allow people to come into your house to arrest you. So the police told him, ‘Once you step out of your house, we will arrest you.’” Human Rights Watch interview with university professor MS, Aden, July 12, 2009.

[213]Human Rights Watch interview with QAA, July 12, 2009.


[215]Human Rights Watch interview with MS, July 12, 2009.

[216]Human Rights Watch interview with Abd al-Khaliq Muthanna Abdullah, Aden, July 11, 2009. All other quotes and information in this section are from this interview.