(New York) – Yemeni troops appear to have unlawfully killed as many as 35 civilians in the city of Taizz since a United Nations Security Council resolution demanded on October 21, 2011 that Yemen stop attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Most of these civilians were killed in artillery shelling by the Yemeni army that indiscriminately struck homes, a hospital, and a public square filled with protesters, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
The Security Council should work toward imposing an asset freeze and a travel ban on President Ali Abdullah Saleh and other senior officials responsible for these and previous attacks on civilians when it meets November 28 to discuss the crisis in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council also should dissociate itself from the portion of an agreement that Saleh signed on November 23 that offers the president and other top officials immunity for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in exchange for leaving office.
“The army’s indiscriminate shelling in Taizz shows President Saleh’s brazen disregard for the lives of Yemeni civilians right up to the time he signed a deal to transfer power,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Because President Saleh’s signature is only as good as the actions that follow, concerned governments and the UN Security Council should still impose targeted sanctions until these unlawful attacks stop and hold Yemeni authorities accountable.”
In Resolution 2014 of October 21, the Security Council called on the Saleh government to immediately end human rights violations in Yemen, including attacks on civilians by the security forces, and urged Saleh to cede power under an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saleh signed the GCC pact on November 23 but has yet to leave office. The pact offers Saleh immunity in exchange for relinquishing power, but the Security Council also declared that, “All those responsible for violence, human rights violations and abuses should be held accountable.” On November 28 the UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, will brief the Security Council on the Yemeni authorities’ progress.
In November Human Rights Watch investigated shelled areas in Taizz, about 250 kilometers south of the capital, Sanaa, and interviewed nearly 50 witnesses, human rights activists, and medical workers about the recent attacks. Taizz has been a focal point for the mostly peaceful protests across Yemen that began in February against Saleh’s 33-year rule. Since June, government forces in Taizz have been fighting tribal opposition fighters and renegade troops who support the protesters.
Human Rights Watch found that army units conducted indiscriminate shelling in violation of the laws of war that probably accounts for the majority – if not all – of the 35 civilian deaths since October 21. The units deployed include the elite Republican Guards, under the command of President Saleh’s son Ahmed. Human Rights Watch also found that many opposition fighters were deployed in densely populated areas, unlawfully placing civilians at grave risk.
In addition to the attacks in Taizz, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that pro-government gunmen killed five anti-Saleh protesters who were participating in a peaceful march on November 24 in Sanaa, and that government forces and renegade soldiers continued deadly clashes there on November 25.
In Taizz, the deadliest attacks, on November 11, killed 14 civilians, including three women protesters in Freedom Square. Government shelling and other attacks that day also killed six children, including a four-year-old girl, in her home, three men at a shop near a mosque, another man in his home, and a patient at al-Rawdha Hospital, which was struck as emergency workers arrived with wounded from other attacks.
Artillery shells and gunfire from government positions struck Freedom Square that day as protesters amassed for a midday rally called the “Day of Rejecting Immunity” for Saleh, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch. One shell landed in the midst of 10 women gathered for prayer, said Siraj Munir al-Adib, 25, who had been seated in an open tent:
Bullets were passing over our heads. I saw Abdullah Althaifani [a Taizz protest leader and university professor] shot by live fire in his right shoulder, in front of me. A few minutes later I heard a big explosion a few meters away. I ran over and saw women who were injured by shrapnel. They were screaming. Three others were killed.
About 20 opposition fighters protecting the protesters were stationed about 300 meters from the women, but they were not inside the square and there was no fighting nearby, the three witnesses said.
Protesters and emergency workers rushed the casualties from Freedom Square and other areas under attack to al-Rawdha Hospital, only to come under renewed shelling. Seven artillery and mortar shells struck the hospital over the course of several minutes, starting around 1 p.m., five witnesses said. One shell tore a hole through the wall of the fourth floor. A man fell through the hole to the street below and died soon after, witnesses said.
“We ran with the visitors, the doctors, the patients, and dozens of wounded to the basement of the hospital,” said Kafa'a Wazi’ Abdu, 36, who had helped bring wounded to al-Rawdha Hospital from Freedom Square. “The dust and smoke from the shelling was rising in front of us. I saw a wounded man in a bed lying on the ground, motionless, in a pool of blood.”
Al-Rawdha Hospital often treats wounded protesters and opposition fighters. It is 100 meters from an opposition checkpoint and 300 meters from a rebel leader’s compound. But no opposition fighters were deployed inside, witnesses said.
Yemeni authorities blamed soldiers of the renegade First Armored Division, which defected to the opposition in March, and the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of opposition political parties, for the November 11 deaths and other recent attacks on civilians in Taizz. But the shells in those attacks came from the direction of government security force positions, multiple witnesses said.
The laws of war apply to all parties to an armed conflict. The warring parties must take all feasible precautions to ensure that a target of attack is a military objective and not a civilian object. Attacks that do not discriminate between military targets and civilian objects are prohibited.
Under the laws of war, hospitals remain protected from attack unless they are “used to commit hostile acts” that are outside their humanitarian function. Even then, they are only subject to attack after a warning has been given setting a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has gone unheeded. The presence of injured combatants does not affect the civilian character of medical facilities.
Combatants also must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under their control from the effects of attacks and avoid deploying in densely populated areas. Even if rebel forces deployed too close to the hospital, it would not justify violations by the government forces.
Saleh’s government has announced it will conduct a national investigation into major human rights violations since protests began. On November 21 Yemen’s parliament, which is dominated by the ruling party, announced it will investigate the recent attacks in Taizz. The government has rejected calls for an international inquiry.
“Many Yemenis have expressed a profound lack of confidence in the ability of government authorities to conduct impartial investigations into human rights abuses,” Stork said. “This creates a critical need for an independent international probe into possible violations.”
November 11, 2011 Attacks by Government Forces in Taizz
Human Rights Watch has confirmed the deaths of 120 civilians in Taizz during unrest related to the anti-Saleh movement since February. Roughly half of the victims were killed by security forces and armed, pro-government assailants during largely peaceful demonstrations. The others were killed during fighting in the city that began in June between opposition fighters and government armed forces, including the Republican Guards, the 33rd Armored Brigade, and Central Security, a paramilitary unit commanded by President Saleh’s nephew, Yahya Saleh.
Since June, about 50 government security personnel and 30 opposition fighters have been killed in Taizz, according to a deputy security chief and a local rebel leader, respectively. Hundreds have been wounded, they said. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify these numbers independently.
Most of the fighting in Taizz since the Security Council resolution on October 21 has taken place in the al-Rawdha neighborhood, where a local rebel commander, Hamud al-Mikhlafi, has deployed opposition fighters at and near his compound. Al-Mikhlafi is a member of the Islah opposition party and an ally of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the renegade First Armored Division. The privately run al-Rawdha Hospital is about 300 meters from al-Mikhlafi’s house.
The November 11 attacks were the deadliest for civilians in Taizz since fighting began in June. In addition to firing on al-Mikhlafi’s compound, army units shelled al-Rawdha Hospital and the surrounding neighborhood. They also shelled the central neighborhood of al-Hasab, damaging many buildings, including a factory, and the residential areas of al-Manakh and al-Kawthar, both near al-Hasab. Residents told Human Rights Watch that the shelling began before dawn. They said some of the attacks, including the shells that hit al-Rawdha Hospital, came from the direction of an army post on al-Jarah Mountain, which overlooks several opposition areas.
Attack on Freedom Square
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that sporadic gunfire from two government positions began striking Freedom Square on the morning of November 11, stopped around 11 a.m., and resumed a half-hour later as hundreds gathered for noontime prayer and their weekly rally. The first shell hit an abandoned hotel overlooking the square, and about 15 minutes later, a second shell struck a group of women protesters, killing three, the witnesses said.
“The women were doing nothing except shouting for the departure of the president,” said Kafa'a Wazi’ Abdu, who was standing nearby when the shell struck. “Suddenly a cursed shell killed our dear friends.”
The shell came from the direction of al-Thawra Hospital, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Republican Guards have occupied al-Thawra Hospital, situated on high ground, and an adjacent medical school since June and used them as a base from which to shell Freedom Square and other opposition targets. Hospitals are protected places that should not be used for military purposes, and their use may be a form of shielding, which is a war crime.
Opposition fighters have deployed on the edge of Freedom Square since June, when state security forces and pro-government gangs fired upon protesters in the square, killing at least 11, then set fire to their encampment and razed it with bulldozers.
Killing in al-Kawthar
Between 8:30 and 9 a.m. on November 11 in al-Kawthar, a neighborhood near Freedom Square, a projectile tore through the window of a house and struck and killed Hani Hasan al-Shaibani, 38, the man’s sister told Human Rights Watch.
The sister, Wafa’ al-Shaibani, 24, said the family had heard explosions and gunfire in the distance all morning but not near the house:
Hani was trying to calm us down, saying it was just shooting in the air. He asked for breakfast and went back to his room. Seconds later, we heard a noise and the house started shaking and a voice cried out from Hani’s room. We ran to Hani’s room and saw smoke and a hole in the window and a hole in the wall. Hani was lying on the ground, with most of his head and face blown off.
The projectiles entered the side of the house facing the government-occupied al-Thawra Hospital, about one kilometer away. The house was about 30 meters from the edge of Freedom Square but at least 300 meters from a building where witnesses said opposition fighters were deployed. Human Rights Watch was unable to determine what kind of projectile struck the house.
Shelling Near al-Taqwa Mosque
An artillery shell believed to have been fired by government forces on November 11 killed three civilians sitting on the steps of a shop near al-Taqwa mosque in al-Rawdha, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The site was at least 300 meters from al-Mikhlafi’s house or any other areas where opposition fighters deploy, the witnesses said.
The shell struck around 10:30 a.m., killing Abdullah Hazzaj, 36; Mahyub Muhammad Tahir, 50; and Tariq Muhammad ‘Abdu,18. Muhammad Mansur, 20, who was sitting with the men and was wounded from shrapnel, told Human Rights Watch:
We were sitting in front of my shop, close to the al-Taqwa mosque. There were no armed men or fighting where we were. We would hear explosions but they were not nearby. Suddenly a shell fell and rocked the area. Shrapnel hit all four of us. It hit Abdullah and Mahyub and Tariq in many parts of their bodies. They choked in their blood and died on the spot.
We were taken to al-Rawdha Hospital and there at 1 p.m. we were surprised by more shells, falling on the hospital. I saw the horror in the eyes of the injured and wounded. They [government forces] are killing us in our houses and then following us with more shells as we rush to hospitals that open their doors to us for treatment.
Opposition fighters had not been near al-Taqwa mosque for months, said Asma’ Muhammad Mahdi, Hazzaj’s sister-in-law. The fighters are stationed at the checkpoint at the entrance to al-Rawdha “and their places are obvious and known,” she said.
Girl Killed in al-Manakh
In the neighborhood of al-Manakh, a shell struck the garden of one home around 3 p.m. on November 11, killing a four-year-old girl and wounding her sister and mother, five witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
Shrapnel burst into the main room of the house and struck Amal Abd al-Basit al-Taj, 4, in the head, killing her instantly, said the girl’s grandmother, Ruqiya Qa’id Nu’man, 48. Shrapnel also blew off the middle finger of Amal’s 10-year-old sister Iman, and struck the girls’ mother, Ibtisam Abdullah Nu’man, in her chest and abdomen, seriously wounding her. The girls and their mother were waiting for their father to come home to spend the afternoon with them, the grandmother said:
The explosion shook the house, and glass, shrapnel and dust flew through the air. Iman's screaming and Ibtisam's moans filled the house. I ran to the main room. It was a terrible scene. The remains of Amal's head and her blood were spread across the room. Iman and her mother were wounded and covered in blood.
Al-Manakh is near al-Hasab, but it is not an opposition-controlled area. No opposition fighters were deployed in the neighborhood, and the closest fighting was one to two kilometers away, according to relatives and neighbors of the victims.
Amal’s father, Abd al-Basit Qa’id Ahmad al-Taj, said he was convinced the shell came from government forces, which he said were deployed that day outside al-Manakh and firing in the direction of his house.
“We have been saying that we live in one of the safest neighborhoods, farthest from the shells and bullets,” Amal’s grandmother said. “However, it seems there are no more places in Taizz that are safe and distant from shells and death.”
Recommendations to the United Nations Security Council:
• Impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on President Saleh and other senior officials implicated in serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
• Maintain these sanctions until the security forces cease the use of excessive and lethal force against peaceful protesters and indiscriminate attacks that harm civilians, and the Yemeni authorities allow an impartial international investigation into serious human rights and humanitarian law violations by all sides since February 2011.
• Dissociate the Security Council from any offer of immunity for serious crimes in violation of international law to Yemeni officials for any purpose, including President Saleh’s resignation.
• Impose an embargo on security assistance and arms sales to Yemen until attacks on peaceful protesters and other violations of international law cease and the authorities allow an impartial international investigation.
• Press for the prosecution of all those responsible for unlawful attacks on protesters and other violations by all sides in compliance with international due process standards.
• Press Yemen to invite the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office in Yemen to monitor and report on human rights violations in Yemen.
To the Government of Yemen:
• Comply with all demands of UN Security Council Resolution 2014, including ending unlawful attacks on civilians and civilian objects; allow an impartial international investigation into serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in 2011, and prosecute those responsible in trials that meet international due process standards.
To Opposition Forces:
• Avoid deploying, to the extent feasible, within or near densely populated areas.