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(Sanaa) – Yemeni authorities should credibly and impartially investigate the apparent extrajudicial execution of a leading political activist in Aden on December 15, 2014, and bring those responsible to justice. Khaled al-Junaidi, 42, died from a gunshot to the back after witnesses saw members of Yemen’s Special Security Forces take him into custody in an armored vehicle.

The authorities stated that a committee was appointed to investigate the killing, but no arrests have been made. Previous investigations into alleged criminal violence by Yemen’s security forces have often failed to disclose their findings or result in prosecutions.

“The Yemeni government has an abysmal record of holding security force members accountable for serious rights abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Failing to seek justice in the killing of Khaled al-Junaidi will only fuel anti-government resentment and send a message that the security forces are beyond the reach of law.”

On the morning of December 15, al-Junaidi and five others were driving around Aden to monitor the security forces’ policing of several anti-government protests. As they drove past Aden’s Central Bank, an armored vehicle containing six Special Security Forces officers ordered them to stop, a witness told Human Rights Watch. When the driver failed to comply, the witness said, the officers opened fire, shooting out the car’s windshield, and drove their armored vehicle into the back of the car, which stopped outside Aden’s post office.

The officers continued firing, then seized al-Junaidi, who did not appear to have been hit. Two officers drove him away in the armored vehicle while the four other officers remained by the car, the witness said. The armored vehicle returned a few minutes later without al-Junaidi, and an officer then drove away the car’s four remaining occupants – one had escaped in the confusion – with the armored vehicle following behind.

About 40 minutes later, at 9 a.m., a security forces vehicle delivered al-Junaidi’s body to Aden’s Republican Hospital, said a media report, although Human Rights Watch could not confirm that. Human Rights Watch learned that an autopsy concluded that al-Junaidi died from a gunshot wound to his back fired at close range, with the bullet exiting through his upper chest. His family buried him on December 16.

Two other men who had been in the car – Muhammad Wahedi and Muhammad Shawqi – remain in detention without charge, family members told Human Rights Watch. They said that Wahedi had fractured ribs and Shawqi had been wounded in the officers’ gunfire. The two men should be charged with credible offenses or released, Human Rights Watch said. The other two have been released.

Yemen authorities have presented conflicting accounts of the investigation into al-Junaidi’s death, heightening concerns that no serious inquiry is being undertaken, Human Rights Watch said. On December 16, a newspaper reported that the secretary-general of Aden’s Municipal Council had ordered a committee to investigate the killing and called for the police to arrest the alleged killer.

A week later, `Abd al-Hafith al-Saqaf, Aden’s special security commander, was quoted in another newspaper saying that al-Junaidi had been killed by one of al-Saqaf’s officers, but that: “I stress that the soldier who committed the crime is a member of the Special Security Forces in Aden and he didn’t get orders from us to do what he has done. He acted independently when he did that.”

However, a news article the next day reported that al-Saqaf denied that the investigating committee had accused his forces of responsibility for the killing or summoned any Special Security officers for questioning: “The local authority that is supposed to form an investigative committee according to a presidential decree has not accused [Special Security officers] and even has not summoned them to face investigation, as officially tasked by the country’s leadership.”

Al-Junaidi’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that no one has been arrested for the killing, that he has not been able to obtain any information from the attorney general on developments, and that no members of the investigative committee have contacted him or the witnesses to al-Junaidi’s abduction.

Al-Junaidi was a leading activist with the Southern Movement (Hirak), an umbrella group that advocates greater autonomy or independence for southern Yemen. In recent years, he has been harassed repeatedly by the authorities and was arrested four times between 2011-2013. On August 31, 2014, his lawyer said, Special Security officers seized him late at night, but government officials denied that he was in custody and senior prosecutors said they had not ordered his arrest.

On September 24, the day after Human Rights Watch published a letter to the government about al-Junaidi’s enforced disappearance, a Political Security Organization officer told al-Junaidi’s family that he was in al-Solban prison in Aden. He was released without charge on November 13 by order of the public prosecutor, al-Junaidi’s father told Human Rights Watch.

While in detention and following his release, al-Junaidi told Human Rights Watch via his lawyer that security officials had beaten him, including with electric cables, and hung him in stress positions, sometimes in the hot sun, including in the presence of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s brother, Nasser Mansour Hadi, the deputy head of the Political Security Organization in the southern coastal provinces of Aden, Abyan, and Lahj. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in October 2014, Nasser Mansour Hadi denied any knowledge of al-Junaidi’s alleged torture.

“The authorities’ failure to deliver justice in al-Junaidi’s killing raises concerns of government involvement that go well beyond the criminal actions of a rogue soldier,” Whitson said. 

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