(New York) – A Yemeni armed group linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula should immediately retract its threat to execute 73 captured government soldiers, Human Rights Watch said today. Ansar al-Sharia (“Partisans of Islamic Law”) threatened to kill the soldiers if authorities do not agree to swap them for detained Islamist militants.
On April 23, 2012, the group distributed posters and made statements in southern Abyan province threatening to execute the troops in batches of 10 starting on April 30, Yemeni media and human rights activists reported.
Executing prisoners is a serious violation of the laws of war and a war crime, Human Rights Watch said. It is also a war crime to use detainees as hostages by threatening to kill or otherwise harm them to compel another party to do or abstain from any act.
“Ansar al-Sharia should immediately drop its threat to execute captured Yemeni soldiers,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “No one’s life – whether a captured soldier or civilian – is a bargaining chip to be discarded at will.”
Ansar al-Sharia, based in Abyan, has been fighting Yemeni forces since it seized the provincial capital, Zinjibar, and the nearby city of Jaar a year ago with the stated aim of imposing strict Islamic rule in the areas. The armed group captured the 73 soldiers during battles outside Zinjibar during the first week of March 2012. Ansar al-Sharia and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have demanded the release of hundreds of Islamist militants allegedly held by the government’s Political Security and National Security agencies in exchange for the soldiers.
In March, Ansar al-Sharia allowed Yemeni human rights groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the captured solders, who also have been allowed to communicate with relatives. The observers reported the soldiers to be in stable condition.
Human Rights Watch has documented apparent violations of the laws of war by both government and Islamist forces in Abyan in 2011, including indiscriminate attacks causing civilian casualties. Tens of thousands of Abyan inhabitants have, since March 2011, fled battles between Ansar al-Sharia and army forces, as well as Yemeni air raids, US aerial drone strikes, and abuses by the militants in areas they control, including floggings, amputations, and other harsh enforcement of Sharia law.
“All warring parties, including Ansar al-Sharia, are obligated to abide by the laws of war,” Whitson said. “Ansar al-Sharia’s claims for a better future for Yemen will ring hollow so long as it threatens and commits atrocities.”