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(Sanaa)– The Yemeni government should immediately release or bring to trial five men detained unlawfully for more than two years. The men are being held in connection with a June 2011 explosion in the presidential palace mosque during the Yemeni uprising.

All five, who say they have been tortured, remain in detention despite a May 2013 presidential order to free three of them immediately.

“In keeping these men behind bars, President Hadi’s government is acting like Yemen’s old abusive regime,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director. “Keeping people locked up against the law and presidential orders sends a message that this government doesn’t care about human rights.”

The mosque explosion killed seven people and seriously injured former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who then transferred power to a deputy as he left the country with his family to seek medical treatment. The five men who remain in custody are among 32 people, including one woman, Yemeni security agents forcibly disappeared in July 2011 in connection with the incident.

In May 2013, after 10 of the prisoners had been released, the 22 remaining detainees went on a hunger strike. That month, sources in the president's office told the detainees’ lawyer that President Abdo Rabbo MansourHadi ordered the immediate release of 19 of them. Soon after, the prosecutor general cleared 17 of the 19 for release on bail, but has not released the others or explained why they are still being held. Five remain in custody, and told Human Rights Watch in interviews in Sanaa Central Prison on September 9 that they were previously tortured while in custody.

On August 26, the Specialized Criminal Court, established in 1999 to handle national security crimes, summoned the five remaining prisoners to a hearing, along with 23 of those who had been released. All 28 were charged with being part of an armed gang intending to attack the president and other state officials as well as military and other government facilities. The judge assigned to the case, Hilal Hamid Ali Mahfal, recused himself, citing the biased media attention, and suggesting that he could not ensure that he could deliver justice impartially. The hearing did not take place.

The five men in detention now wait for officials to assign a new judge to their case, according to their lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, who provides legal aid through the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms.

Article 14 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Yemen is a party, requires a trial without undue delay for anyone accused of a crime. General Comment 32, in which the UN Human Rights Committee interprets the covenant, states: “In cases where the accused are denied bail by the court, they must be tried as expeditiously as possible. This guarantee relates not only to the time between the formal charging of the accused and the time by which a trial should commence, but also the time until the final judgment on appeal. All stages, whether in first instance or on appeal must take place ‘without undue delay.’

The government’s detention of these five prisoners violates article 14, as well as Yemeni law. The prosecution should try or release all five prisoners without delay.

“Holding people for over two years without trial is a clear violation of their rights,” Stork said. “The delays don’t stem from serious investigations – instead, political forces are postponing the course of justice.”

Background: The Five Remaining Prisoners

Abdullah Saed al-Ta`ami
Abdullah Saed al-Ta`ami, a 31-year-old presidential bodyguard, told Human Rights Watch that the investigative unit of the Presidential Guard arrested him while he was on duty at the presidential palace a month after the explosion in the mosque. Guards held him in solitary confinement in the basement of the palace for six months. During this time, he said, his one-time Presidential Guard colleagues kept his legs and arms in chains so that he had to crawl to move, including to the bathroom. They gave him little food, the cell had no light, and they did not permit him to contact his family, he said.

For the first two months, officers of the National Security Bureau (NSB), one of the country’s intelligence agencies,interrogated him on a daily basis he said, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. The agents always blindfolded him and frequently hung him 20 centimeters off the ground by his wrists from a metal chain attached to the roof, for as long as two or three hours at a time.

Al-Ta`ami went on a 10-day hunger strike, until finally, in early January 2012 he said, officials transferred him and the four other prisoners remaining from the original group to a detention facility run by the Political Security Organization (PSO), another of the country’s intelligence agencies.

At this point, he and the other prisoners were able to contact their families, and in this facility, officials did not confine al-Ta`ami alone, but in a cell with 15 other prisoners. Officials brought al-Ta`ami and the other four men in his group before Hadi Eidah, the prosecutor of the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Eidah charged them with being part of an armed gang with the intention of attacking the president and other state officials, and with targeting military and other government facilities.

Al-Ta`ami raised allegations of torture with Eidah, and he thinks the prosecutor took notes on some of his comments, but not all. “When I insisted that he write down the details of my torture, he refused, and got annoyed,” he told Human Rights Watch. The agents who had tortured al-Ta`ami were present at his meeting with the prosecutor.

Officials transferred al-Ta`ami in December 2012 to Sanaa Central Prison, where he is still detained. Officials are housing al-Ta`ami and the four other detainees in his case in the medical ward, in what Human Rights Watch believes to be much better conditions than in the regular prison cells. The presidential order for release did not include al-Ta`ami’s name, but he has yet to stand trial for any crime.

Mohammed Ahmed Ali Omar
Security agents of the Presidential Guard arrested Mohammed Ahmed Ali Omar, 30, another presidential bodyguard, on July 3, 2011, while he was on duty at the palace. Like al-Ta`ami, he endured detention for six months in a cell under the palace, before moving to the Political Security facility, he told Human Rights Watch. During his detention in the palace, he said, guards blindfolded him, dipped his finger in ink, and placed his fingerprint on multiple documents. He also said that guards who were his onetime colleagues kept his arms and legs chained together for the full six months of his detention, including when he took a shower, and that during interrogations, the manager of presidential security and National Security agents hung him, like al-Ta`ami, from the ceiling.

Omar told Human Rights Watch that one night guards released a snake in his cell and waited two or three hours to remove it. He was terrified. When he raised this incident and other allegations of ill-treatment with Eidah, the prosecutor, he refused to record them in his report. Eidah told Omar that the confessions stamped with his fingerprint proved his crimes, Omar told Human Rights Watch. Omar’s name was not on the presidential order.

Ghalib al-Ayzeri
One month after the bombing, members of the Presidential Guard arrested Ghalib al-Ayzeri, 25, a soldier in the guard, at his workplace at the palace. The manager of Presidential Security interrogated him and then had him locked in a cell under the palace. Over the next six months, Presidential Guard officials kept him in chains in a dark, isolated cell, and gave him only five minutes to use the bathroom every day. National Security agents and Presidential Guard members conducted interrogations that started in the afternoon and continued into the early hours of the morning.

Al-Ayzeri told Human Rights Watch that the agents sometimes suspended him, too, from the ceiling, and always placed a hood over his head during interrogations. When he moved to the Political Security facility and appeared before Eidah, he demanded a lawyer. The prosecutor refused, he said, and threatened, “I will move you to an isolation cell if you keep insisting.” Security officials were present when he met with Eidah, who refused to record al-Ayzeri’s allegations that he had been tortured.

At the time, al-Ayzeri’s cell contained about 15 people, but in the following months the number increased to 28, he said.

The presidential order to free detainees included his name, though officials failed to release him.

Ibrahim Hammoud al-Hammadi
Ibrahim Hammoud al-Hammadi, 32, is the public relations manager for the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, a foundation run by the opposition group Islah. Al-Hammadi was at his brother’s house in Sanaa on July 18, 2011, when two armed plainclothes officers arrived at the door, asking for his brother, Mukhtar Hammoud al-Hammadi. Al-Hammadi told them his brother was out. They then asked Ibrahim al-Hammadi his name. When he gave it, the officers put guns to his head, handcuffed and hooded him, and dumped him on the floor of a pickup truck, he told Human Rights Watch. They drove him a short distance to a detention cell.

He says that only after a month and a half of listening to calls to prayer from the local mosque did he realize that he was in the National Security Bureau headquarters in the Old City of Sanaa. The security agency held him for six months without allowing him to contact his family.

For the first month and a half, officials kept him in a 1-by-2-meter underground cell. Guards allowed him to use the bathroom for only three minutes every 24 hours. Al-Hammadi told Human Rights Watch that his drinking water was dirty, and that guards suspended him from the ceiling with chains daily or every few days, once hanging him continuously for 18 hours.

He said that guards blindfolded him on a few occasions and dipped his thumbs in a liquid that gave a very painful sensation, and damaged his nails, still yellow and gnarled when Human Rights Watch visited. He said that on another occasion, guards hooded him and fitted a heavy clamp around his neck that they could progressively tighten.

He said that the security officers questioned him about his role in the revolutionary movement in Change Square, the nexus of the uprising, and presented photographs of the square, asking whether he knew the people in the photos. When he said he did not, the officers struck him, he told Human Rights Watch. As a result, he began to say he recognized faces, even when he did not. Al-Hammadi requested a lawyer during his meeting with Eidah, but he said the prosecutor denied the request. In the presence of his interrogators, al-Hammadi told the prosecutor that he had been tortured, but Eidah refused to record his allegations, he told Human Rights Watch.

The presidential release order included his name, but officials did not free him. Al-Hammadi said he asked the prosecutor general, who visited him during the hunger strike in May and June, to explain but that he would not answer.

Shuaib Mohammed al-Bajari
Shuaib Mohammed al-Bajari, 25, is an internet technology student at Sanaa University. On August 15, 2011, National Security Bureau officers broke into his home, arrested him, and took him to their headquarters, he told Human Rights Watch. There, he said, security agents interrogated and tortured him every day using varying techniques. Al-Bajari told Human Rights Watch that guards chained his hands together and beat him with a belt, once drawing blood. They suspended him from the ceiling for periods of 8 to 16 hours, at a height that allowed only his toes to brush the ground. After one month and 17 days, officers presented him with a printed confession and forced him to copy it out. The document included a list of names of alleged participants in the mosque bombing – but not his own. After he wrote out the confession, the torture stopped, he said.

Al-Bajari later told Eidah he had been tortured and he believes the prosecutor recorded his allegations. The presidential release order included his name, yet he remains in custody.

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