(Washington, DC) – Yemeni security forces have systematically and unlawfully detained several hundred people, including journalists, in the context of the four-year civil war with rebel forces in northern Yemen, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Human Rights Watch urged Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to establish an independent commission to investigate arbitrary arrests and “disappearances” and to punish those responsible.
The 47-page report, “Disappearances and Arbitrary Arrests in the Armed Conflict with Huthi Rebels in Yemen,” documents 62 cases of unlawful and arbitrary arrest in connection with the conflict in northern Yemen that since 2004 has periodically erupted into heavy clashes. Yemeni human rights groups have credibly documented hundreds of cases of unlawful arrests, and in August 2008 the government spoke of more than 1,200 political prisoners. The government has detained some individuals as hostages in order to pressure wanted family members to surrender, while arresting others for publicizing government abuses during the conflict.
President Saleh declared an end to fighting in the northern Sa’da governorate on July 17, 2008, and in August and September he ordered some prisoners released, but dozens remain detained without charge or trial, and some are still unaccounted for.
“Dozens of people who committed no crime are still languishing in Yemeni prisons, months after the president promised to deal with their cases,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Some family members still don’t know if their loved ones who were ‘disappeared’ are dead or alive.”
Since the beginning of armed conflict between Huthi rebels and the government in the northern Yemeni governorate of Sa’da in 2004, assorted Yemeni security agencies – Political Security, National Security, and regular criminal investigation departments – have arrested several hundred persons without warrant and failed to charge them with any criminal offense.
The Huthi rebels began as the Zaidi Shi’a religious revivalist movement, the Believing Youth, in the 1990s under the leadership of Husain al-Huthi, from whom they took their name. They took up arms in 2004 after the Yemeni government closed their religious schools.
Those whom the government has arbitrarily arrested comprise a wide range of persons not actively participating in hostilities against government forces. They include people who were effectively held hostage to pressure a wanted family member to surrender or to end their human rights activities. They also include people whom security forces targeted for their religious activism. Others were Zaidis going to or returning from areas of recent fighting, or otherwise suspected of sympathizing with the Huthis. In the most recent round of fighting that erupted in May 2008, security agencies locked up journalists and website writers merely for publishing information about the conflict.
In nearly all the cases, arresting officials did not identify themselves or inform the detainee or his family why he was being arrested and where he was being taken. Families of persons “disappeared” did not know for weeks or months whether their relatives were alive or not or who their captors were. Some still do not know. Even after hostilities ceased in July, security forces continued to arrest people arbitrarily from the conflict areas.
Among those forcibly disappeared was Khalid al-Sharif, a US citizen who returned to Yemen in April 2008 to visit his family. Security forces arrested him on June 16; he only reappeared at Political Security headquarters on August 13 and he remained in detention as of late September 2008. Interior Ministry officials arrested Shaikh Salih Ali Al Wajman, an official mediator in the conflict, on February 15, 2007 because he had written a report unfavorable to the government, and only released him on August 17, 2008.
The government did not respond to a Human Rights Watch letter of September 16, 2008 to Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi inquiring about the fate of 29 named individuals. In the other 33 cases that Human Rights Watch investigated, those concerned preferred to remain anonymous. Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, Abdulwahhab Al-Hajjri, on October 16 told Human Rights Watch that he would assiduously pursue information on those 29 cases.
“Months after the guns fell silent in Sa’da, Yemenis are still in prison without being charged with any crime,” said Stork. “President Saleh should take up this opportunity to remedy the injustices committed by his security forces and take immediate steps to ensure these abuses are not repeated.”