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(New York) - Yemeni authorities should immediately reveal the whereabouts of a southern Yemeni opposition leader and his son who were forcibly disappeared in February 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern for the health of Hassan Baoum, an ailing leader of Yemen's separatist Southern Movement, and believes authorities may be holding the two men solely because of their political views.

"Four months after masked Yemeni security forces snatched Hassan Baoum and his son from a hospital, their family has been told nothing of their fate," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Yemeni authorities should immediately reveal their whereabouts and set them free if they haven't been charged with a recognized criminal offense."

Hassan Baoum, 68, and his son Fawaz, 34, have been missing since February 20. Masked men in state security force uniforms took them from al-Naqib hospital in the southern port city of Aden, according to patients and staff. Hassan Baoum, whose medical conditions include diabetes, renal impairment, and a heart condition, had been in a hospital bed awaiting treatment. The masked men did not provide any explanation or show a warrant, the witnesses said.

Hassan Baoum chairs the Supreme Council of the Southern Movement, an opposition coalition that seeks independence or increased autonomy for southern Yemen, which was a separate republic before it united with North Yemen in 1990. Since 2007, the Southern Movement has been protesting what it views as economic and political discrimination by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government against southern Yemenis. The Southern Movement also has joined the anti-Saleh protests that have swept Yemen since February.

Family members have received no official confirmation of the men's detention; nor have they been told where they are being held. Two days after the men were taken from the hospital, a person known to the family who worked with local security forces confidentially told relatives that the men had been transferred to a Political Security prison in the capital, Sanaa.

In March, an intermediary told the family that National Security, a different security branch, was holding Hassan and Fawaz Baoum and that authorities had denied the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the men. Since then, the family has received occasional, anonymous calls saying the two men are being held in various parts of Yemen, but they have not been able to verify the information.

"We have tried everything to learn where our relatives are, but we still have no idea about their fate," Saba Baoum, one of Hassan Baoum's daughters, told Human Rights Watch. "We are very, very worried."A government's refusal to acknowledge a person's detention or to provide a detainee's whereabouts following arrest by state security forces is an enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. Enforced disappearances frequently result in violations of the right to life, liberty, and security of the person, the right not to be subjected to torture, and the right to recognition as a person before the law.

Authorities had detained Hassan and Fawaz Baoum three previous times since 2007 on charges that included planning illegal demonstrations and instigating riots. After the first two arrests, each was convicted but released on time served, a relative said. Hassan Baoum was detained for three months in 2007, for six months in 2008, and again from November 2010 to January 2011. Fawaz Baoum was detained with his father in 2007 and 2010, and separately in 2009. Relatives said that at some points during those detentions, Hassan Baoum was held incommunicado and without medical assistance.

"Those who ordered and carried out the disappearances are putting the lives of Hassan Baoum and his son at risk and are directly responsible for any harm they suffer," Stork said. "But it is the government's responsibility to end this situation immediately and verify the whereabouts of the two men."

In 2008, Human Rights Watch documented a broad pattern of enforced disappearances in Yemen, and found that the government's Political Security and National Security agencies played key roles. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented security forces' unlawful methods against the Southern Movement, including the use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators and the detention of hundreds of the group's suspected members and leaders for periods as long as six months, often without judicial review or contact with lawyers.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed the deaths of 167 people since February in attacks by state security forces or armed pro-government assailants - often facilitated by security forces - on peaceful anti-Saleh protesters.

Foreign governments should take measures that include freezing the assets of Saleh and top security officials until such abuses stop and those responsible are held to account, Human Rights Watch said.

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