December 15, 2009

III. Background

Yemen is a country of 22 million people, geographically slightly larger than France, on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea from the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia). The World Bank estimated Yemen’s annual per capita gross domestic product at US$520 in 2003, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. That year, Yemen ranked 151 out of 177 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.[1] Three quarters of Yemenis live in rural areas.

In 1962, an army coup ended centuries of rule by the Zaidi imam, establishing the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in what many referred to as North Yemen. A civil war in the 1960s drew-in Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the republican and imamate sides respectively. What was then South Yemen had been a British protectorate until it achieved independence as the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in November 1967.

Unity and Secession

Historical accounts and the Qur’an refer to Yemen as a geographic entity, although kingdoms and principalities with different names existed on the territory until colonial powers including the Portuguese, Ottomans, and the British occupied parts of what is now Yemen. Throughout the twentieth century, people living there under different political regimes nonetheless thought of themselves as Yemenis, part of “a mythological past in ‘Arabia Felix’,”[2] providing the popular foundation for the unification of the YAR and the PDRY.

In 1989, the PDRY’s Soviet backers pulled out their military personnel, recalled their advisers, and cut aid, leading the government to begin a program of political liberalization and to consider union with the north.[3]  The YAR, meanwhile, also faced economic pressures and was keen to develop oil fields around Shabwa, in the territory of the PDRY.[4]  The two leaders, Ali Salim al-Baidh and Ali Abdullah Saleh, declared unity of the two Yemens on May 22, 1990 as the Republic of Yemen. Yemen embarked on a path of multiparty politics and held its first elections in 1993. Rather than spur unity, the elections reinforced the divide between southern Yemen which overwhelmingly voted for Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) candidates, and northern Yemen, whose voters returned candidates of the Islah party, an Islamist group, and General People’s Congress (GPC), the party of President Saleh.[5] Relations between the YSP and the GPC, which had formed a coalition government after 1990, deteriorated over policy differences, not least the speed and extent of integration of the two separate armies, bureaucratic and judicial reform, and measures against corruption and terrorism.[6] An attack on southern army units stationed in the north, allegedly by northern tribesmen, sparked the civil war of April-June 1994, which ended in southern defeat.[7] 

After the 1994 war, the authorities in San`a forcibly retired many southern military officers and civil servants and replaced them with northerners. Many southerners regard the defeat as the beginning of a sharp decline in their economic fortunes and the start of an even greater marginalization of southerners in northerner-dominated united Yemen, although southern Yemen’s formerly socialist economy was already in sharp decline long before the civil war, and mismanagement of the economy was one of the main factors driving South Yemen towards unification.[8] The damage from the war and the looting to factories and industries was never fully repaired, and southerners claim that economic patronage and oil-based development has bypassed them in favor of northerners.[9] According to southern accounts, southern land and oil contracts often went to northerners close to the president, and the profits from Yemen’s oil exploitation in the south lined the pockets of northerners.[10] Some 100,000 retired southern military officers and civil servants only sporadically received their pensions.[11] Suspensions of pensions often appear to be politically motivated, occurring after the individual participated in a political protest.[12] These economic grievances are at the core of the southern protests.

Security Forces

There are many security agencies in Yemen answering to different parts of the executive. Their remits overlap, leading to public uncertainty about which agency might be responsible for a particular human rights violation.

A 1980 presidential order established Central Security (al-Amn al-Markazi), tasking the agency with responsibilities ranging from ensuring the safety of property and persons to border patrolling and counter-terrorism.[13] Central Security is officially under the Minister of Interior’s direct authority.[14] This agency has been heavily involved in the use of force against southern demonstrators.

Also under the Interior Ministry are the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) responsible for non-political crimes, and a separate counter-terrorism unit. However, both the CID and the counter-terrorism unit have carried out arrests of persons for alleged political offenses. The CID has been responsible for many of the arrests of southern protestors and activists at the local level.

Political Security is Yemen’s domestic intelligence agency, established by Decree 121 in 1992 as the Central Agency for Political Security (al-Jihaz al-Markazi lil-Amn al-Siyasi). Its powers of arrest and detention derive only from this decree and not from any law, and its detention facilities are not among the authorized places of detention, as required by the Yemeni constitution.[15] The agency reports directly to President Saleh. Political Security appears to be responsible chiefly for arresting suspected leaders and organizers of the Southern Movement, as well as intellectuals and other prominent persons involved with the Southern Movement whose influence reaches beyond the local level.

National Security, an agency established by decree 262 in 2002, mainly prepares analyses and provides advice to the government. A dispute over competency and authority between it and Political Security led National Security to establish its own detention centers in the early 2000s, also undeclared and therefore outside the framework of Yemeni law. Its powers of arrest and detention similarly only derive from decree and not law.[16] This agency does not appear to play much of a role in the state’s response to the Southern Movement.

Other agencies that witnesses said are involved in suppressing protests, arresting or detaining activists include the military police, Presidential Guard, military intelligence, and various military units, including air defense troops.

Yemen’s judiciary provides no effective oversight over the legality of arrests and detentions. National Security and Political Security in particular do not abide by requirements under Yemeni’s Criminal Procedure Law of 1994 that officials conduct arrests only pursuant to a warrant, present suspects for charge within 24 hours of arrest, and release prisoners whose sentences have expired.[17]

The Specialized Criminal Court (al-Mahkama al-Jaza’iyya al-Mutakhassisa), established by law in 1999, was originally set up to try crimes defined in the Qur’an and included in the Penal Code, such as highway robbery (hiraba), in addition to other statutory offenses not specified in the Qur’an, including the abduction of foreigners, harming oil installations, theft by armed groups of means of transportation, membership in an armed group seeking to attack public property or citizens, and attacking members of the judiciary or abducting officials or their family members. In 2004, a new law broadened the court’s jurisdiction to include vaguely-worded crimes against national security.[18] The court, like most of the judiciary in Yemen, is not independent and its trials do not meet international standards of fairness.[19]

[2] Joseph Kostiner, “Yemen. The Tortuous Quest for Unity, 1990-94,” The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House Papers, (Royal Institute of International Affairs, London: 1996), p.2.

[3] Joseph Kostiner, “Yemen,” p.7.

[4] Joseph Kostiner, “Yemen,” p.11. See also: Klaus Enders et al., “Yemen in the 1990s: From Unification to Economic Reform,” International Monetary Fund, Occasional Papers 208, (accessed October 29, 2009), p. 4.

[5]Brian Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen (2009), e-book published at (accessed October 28, 2009), p.137.

[6] Joseph Kostiner, “Yemen,” p. 65-74.

[7] Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Yemen: Human Rights in Yemen During and After the 1994 War, vol. 6, no. 5, October 1994, p.6.

[8]Brian Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen, pp. 16-22. A 1990 contemporary account described the economic conditions in South Yemen prior to unification as follows: “[T]he economy had effectively broken down; farmers refused to deliver food for the miserable prices they could get, for weeks the only food available in Aden market was potatoes, bread and onions. The government’s coffers were empty…” Liesl Graz, “South Yemen Waits for Unity,” Middle East International, March 16, 1990.

[9] Ginny Hill, “Yemen: Fear of Failure,” Chatham House Middle East Programme Briefing Paper, November 2008, p.5.

[10]“Troubled Yemen,” The Economist (London), June 2, 2009.

[11]Brian Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen, p. 216.

[12] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Jamal Shunaitir, teacher, Shabwa, and Ali bin Yahya, civil servant in education department, Shabwa, July 12, 2009.

[13] Republican Decision no 107, Ministry of Interior, 1980, published on the website of the Central Security Forces, (accessed November 28, 2009).

[14]Ministry of Interior, Organizational Regulation of the Ministry of Interior, 1995. (accessed August 19, 2008).

[15] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Qasim, lawyer, San’a, September 2, 2008. According to information Human Rights Watch obtained, the Political Security agency’s places of detention are also not authorized as required by the Constitution. Yemen’s constitution prohibits detention “in any place not authorized under the Prisons Administration Law.” Constitution of the Republic of Yemen, 2001, art. 48(b).

[16] President of the Republic of Yemen, “Republican Decision on the Establishment of the National Security Agency by the Republic of Yemen,” August 6, 2002. Article 5.2 provides National Security officers with the powers of judicial arrest officers. Article 84 of Yemen’s law of Criminal Procedure lists prosecutors, governors, police officers and others as “judicial arrest officers,” and further specifies that “all officers who have been given the quality of judicial arrest officers by law (emphasis added) may be added to the list.” President of the Republic of Yemen, “Republican Decision on Law no 13 of Year 1994 Regarding Criminal Procedures,” articles 84-9.

[17] Republican Decision on Law no 13 for the Year 1994 Regarding Criminal Procedure.

[18] Republican Decision on Law no 391 for the Year 1999 Regarding the Specialized Criminal Court, art. 3; and Republican Decision on Law no 8 for the Year 2004, Regarding the Specialized Criminal Court, art 1.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with defense lawyer for suspected Huthi rebel sympathizers [name withheld on request], San’a, July 2008. The lawyer detailed how the court refused to allow defense witnesses to give evidence, and how the court accepted prosecution allegations, such as plans to poison San’a’s water supply, without evidence.