(Sanaa) – Yemeni security forces and militia have beaten peaceful protesters and mistreated those arrested during demonstrations in the capital, Sanaa, since late January 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The future government should hold those responsible for serious abuses accountable, and rescind an indefinite ban on unauthorized protests issued on February 8.

Between January 25 and February 11, Yemeni security forces and men who appeared to be members of the Houthi armed group, also known as Ansar Allah, repeatedly beat peaceful protesters with sticks and rifle butts, witnesses said. They arbitrarily detained at least 46 protesters, though most were released the same day, according to local rights groups. Militias detained another 10 people near demonstration sites for up to 13 days. On February 11, Ansar Allah militia detained three men attempting to join a protest and tortured them, two of the victims told Human Rights Watch. The other victim later died.

“Yemeni authorities need to send a clear message to their security forces, including Ansar Allah members, that beating and otherwise mistreating peaceful protesters won’t be tolerated,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “People have a right to demonstrate, and the blanket ban on protests should be lifted immediately.”

The authorities should act responsibly and hold anyone who abuses protesters to account, Human Rights Watch said.

Since November 2014, Ansar Allah, a northern armed group, has taken effective control of Sanaa and other areas, leading to the resignation of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government on January 22, 2015. This sparked protests on January 25 and the days leading up to February 11, the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising. A February 8 Interior Ministry order instructs Sanaa police to prevent unauthorized demonstrations “considering the exceptional circumstances that the country is facing.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 31 protesters and other witnesses, including 10 who had been detained, and monitored demonstrations on January 25, 26, 29, and 31. Between 30 and 80 people took part in those protests on each day. Law enforcement consisted of armed men in police and military uniforms as well as armed men in civilian dress bearing Ansar Allah stickers on their rifles and carrying posters with the Ansar Allah slogan: “God is Great/Death to America/Death to Israel/Curse the Jews/Victory to Islam.”

A 30-year-old protester, Abd al-Daem al-Bukhari, said that on January 28, “One gunman started shouting that we were agents of America and Israel. My legs are covered in bruises because one man hit me with a stick.”

Protesters told Human Rights Watch that the armed men beat and otherwise mistreated them, including in detention. Those who had been detained said that their captors threatened to “disappear” them. They said that both the uniformed officers and the Ansar Allah members cursed the protesters and accused them of supporting the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the United States, and Israel. Human Rights Watch saw no indication that any of the protesters were armed or in any way threatened law enforcement officers.

One witness said that during the February 11 protest, men he identified as belonging to the Ansar Allah militia stabbed two protesters in the neck with jambiyas, the traditional dagger Yemeni men carry. Two protesters told Human Rights Watch that armed men in civilian dress beat them unconscious with sticks and rifle butts as they tried to approach the demonstration, and detained five protesters.

Local journalists were constrained from reporting on the demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said. The Freedom Foundation, a Yemeni organization that monitors press freedom, reported 25 attacks on journalists during the first two protests in late January. The incidents, most at or near the protests, included abductions, detentions, beatings, and confiscation of equipment.

The government’s indefinite ban on unauthorized public protests violates the right to peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Yemen ratified in 1987, permits restrictions on peaceful assembly to protect national security and public order only if they are narrowly defined and proportionate to the harm threatened, and to the extent they are strictly necessary. 

Yemeni authorities should also abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which provide that all security forces shall whenever possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to force. They should not use firearms against people except to prevent imminent death or serious injury.

“Given the big political changes in Yemen in recent weeks, people will want to voice their views,” Stork said. “The authorities need to ensure that people who want to speak out peacefully are protected, not beaten and abused.”

Accounts of Violence Against Protesters, January 25 to February 11, 2015

January 25
Ghamdan al-Samai, 30, a journalist who was at the demonstration, told Human Rights Watch that at about 9:30 a.m. protesters gathered at Change Square, in front of the main entrance to Sanaa University to demonstrate against Ansar Allah. The protesters opposed the group’s armed presence in various cities, its confiscation of weapons from the military arsenal, control of public property, and its restrictions on the government and president. By 11 a.m., at least 40 protesters were preparing to leave the square to march to the Parliament, which was holding a session on the recent events.

Human Rights Watch observed at least 20 police officers and 4 men who appeared to be Ansar Allah members, all armed with Kalashnikov assault weapons, standing along one edge of the square, next to seven armored vehicles, two without license plates. Most officers carried rifles bearing stickers with Ansar Allah slogans. On the opposite side of Change Square, Human Rights Watch saw two military officers armed with Kalashnikovs and a third holding a rifle-propelled grenade.

The police officers approached the crowd and without warning started beating unarmed protesters with rifle butts and batons, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. They arrested 22 protesters, including Samed Muhamad, 23, a university student and editor of Al-Oula newspaper, he told Human Rights Watch. Officers loaded them into armored vehicles and drove them to al-Ghudairi police station.

“All the protesters were peaceful, they were carrying only books and pens,” said Hussein al-Houthaifi, 24, a writer who was there. He said he tried to stop officers from pushing his female colleague to the ground. Five officers surrounded him and two hit him in the head with rifle butts and dragged him to their armored vehicle. When he asked for medical attention they refused and took him to al-Ghudairi police station.

Muhamad al-Omdah, another protester, said:

The officers pointed guns to our head as they loaded us into the armored vehicles. I heard one policeman say to his fellow officers, “If one tries to escape, shoot him!” All of them had Ansar Allah stickers on their guns. Even though they were in uniform, the men who later questioned us were members of Ansar Allah – I saw the sticker on most of their weapons – and they looked much younger than typical policemen.

Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that about 15 minutes after the crowd of protesters in Change Square had dispersed, at least 15 officers in police and the Special Security Force uniforms stormed through the gates of Sanaa University. They fired above the heads of about 15 to 20 students who were petitioning to have an exam postponed because of the situation in the city. No one was injured.

January 26
At 9 a.m. dozens of apparent Ansar Allah members as well as police and Special Security Force personnel marched from al-Qadissya roundabout to Change Square, about 2 kilometers away, where protesters had gathered. The Ansar Allah supporters blocked Sanaa University’s main gate, preventing protesters and students alike from passing through.

Within half-an-hour, about 80 protesters had gathered outside the gate, intending to march to the presidential residence, said Salah al-Muhamadi, 34, an activist who participated. Armored vehicles covered in Ansar Allah slogans arrived at about 10:50 a.m. and blocked the roads leading from Change Square. Al-Muhamadi said that dozens of Ansar Allah supporters arrived in vehicles and threatened and assaulted protesters, stabbing one of them.

Six protesters told Human Rights Watch at the scene that the Ansar Allah supporters had beaten them with fists, sticks, and stones. Ahmed al-Dhubhani, 21, a student and activist, said he saw the officers and apparent Ansar Allah members put about four protesters into civilian vehicles.

Khalid Abd al-Hadi, a journalist for Al-Masdar newspaper, told Human Rights Watch that at about 10:45 a.m., just a few minutes before the armed men assaulted protesters in the square, he saw about a half-dozen men in police and Special Security Force uniforms instructing two groups of men in civilian clothes carrying wooden sticks.

Al-Dhubhani said that he and a female cousin ran from the area as the armed men assaulted members of the crowd. The two entered the gate of a private house and explained their situation to the homeowner, who called out for security. Police and other armed men came and took al-Dhubhani away, but left his cousin. Al-Dhubhani said:

I was detained by armed men, some in security uniforms, others in traditional [Yemeni] clothes, at about 11 a.m. They put me in the back of a regular car and blindfolded me, hitting me all the time with their hands and jambiyas. They drove me to the yard of an abandoned Hilton Hotel near Freedom Square – I figured the location out later – and put me in an old dirty room, with one of my colleagues, [name withheld] who had also been at the protest.

After two hours they blindfolded me again and took me to a converted shipping container in a yard with several containers that used to be used by [President] Hadi’s guards before Ansar Allah took the presidential residence. There two men in police uniforms interrogated me in a container with several rooms. In the other rooms they were holding two other protesters, Marwan Al-Sabri and Khaled Aldaara. The policemen punched and slapped me, and accused me of being a paid CIA spy. They kept asking me how much money the Americans were paying me and the other protesters.

Finally, they forced me to thumbprint a pledge not to participate in any demonstrations. It said something like, “I am Ahmed. I admit in writing that I am not a tool of US intelligence, and I am not affiliated to Tawakkol Karman [a Nobel laureate and prominent Islah party member] and I am abandoning my revolutionary and political principles in exchange for my release.” They released me about 10 p.m. that night.

Tawfiq al-Qawri, 32, an activist at the protest, told Human Rights Watch that a man in civilian clothes accused him of being an ISIS supporter and threated to “disappear” him. He said armed men were stationed along all the alleyways and roads leading out from Change Square.

January 29
At 10:45 a.m. Human Rights Watch saw about 50 people gathered in front of the Sanaa University Gate to protest against Ansar Allah. They started marching and at about 11 a.m. reached al-Karama roundabout on al-Da’iri Street. A soldier driving a car with civilian license plates pulled up in front of the crowd. Four men got out, two in police uniform and two in civilian dress. One of them grabbed Abd al-Rahman Noman, 33, a businessman leading the protest, who had been arrested at the January 25 protest. The other three men, all carrying Kalashnikovs, forced him into the car and sped off. Noman later told Human Rights Watch that they held him in a converted shipping container and released him that night.

January 31
About 30 people gathered for an anti-Ansar Allah protest at 10:15 a.m. in Change Square. Human Rights Watch observed a group of at least 25 people with pro-Ansar Allah posters enter the square, followed by at least three armored vehicles and three police cars. Farida al-Yarimi, a 53-year-old protester, said that the group assaulted several protesters, beating them with sticks, punching, and slapping them for about 15 minutes until the crowd dispersed. One protester’s forehead was cut, she said. Another said that he saw armed men in civilian dress catch a well-known activist and beat him with sticks and their hands while they chanted Ansar Allah slogans.

Fouad al-Hamdani, 34, a political activist linked to the Islah party, told Human Rights Watch that at 11:15 a.m. he and a female activist were walking away from the protest area. Six armed men in military uniforms grabbed them both and threw them into a Jeep without license plates. The vehicle bore the Ansar Allah slogan and inside was a photo of the Ansar Allah leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, indicating they were Ansar Allah militia members. Al-Hamdani asked the men to release the woman, whom they let out after a few minutes. As they drove off, one man told him that they would kill anyone who was against Ansar Allah.

The men brought him to al-Mualimi police station, al-Hamdani told Human Rights Watch. They took away his cell phone and went through the call log, seeing his calls to Tawakkol Karman and other politicians opposed to Ansar Allah. They accused him of leading the protest and locked him in a cell. At 6 p.m., they drove him in a black car without plates, with the Ansar Allah slogan on the sides, to a guard room next to the presidential residence:

Men there, some in police or military uniforms and some in civilian clothes, interrogated me until midnight. The next day, at about 4 p.m. they drove me to the abandoned Hilton Hotel near Freedom Square and locked me in a dirty bathroom off the courtyard for four days without electricity or running water, and gave me barely any food. One guard told me: “We were going to release you but then we realized that you are one of the dangerous leaders so we decided not to. We want you to work with us as a member of the Popular Committees of Ansar Allah.” I refused.

They held him at that site until February 12, when the same men who had detained him returned, blindfolded him, and drove him to al-Iman University, one of the key targets of Ansar Allah during its military operations in Sanaa in September 2014. Later that day four guards shackled and blindfolded him, tied him to a metal table and beat him with a thick rope on his hip while one man covered his nose and mouth for short periods of time to prevent him from breathing. Al-Hamdani said that at one point one of the guards yelled, “Be careful, he is going to die if you keep holding his nose!” The other responded, “Let him die.” They videotaped all of the interrogations, he told Human Rights Watch:

After beating me, they forced me to write a note saying that Tawakkol Karman is a terrorist, that she receives funds from the US embassy, and a few other accusations. They said that they would kill me if I went back to the protests and then drove me to a street corner at around midnight and pushed me out of the car.

February 7
Ghamdan al-Samai, 30, a journalist, told Human Rights Watch that he watched protesters opposed to Ansar Allah gather in Change Square in the morning. More than two dozen police officers and armed men in civilian dress arrived and started punching and beating protesters with sticks. The police detained 11 protesters. Al-Dhubhani, who had been arrested at the January 26 protest, told Human Rights Watch that they released nine within 24 hours but only released him and one other protester, Rashad al-Mikhlafi, five days later.

February 11
Saleh al-Bishri, 33, a teacher, drove to a Sanaa protest on February 11in a pickup truck with two colleagues, Ali Taher al-Faqih, 34, and Abd al-Ghaleel al-Subari, 38, and a friend Mansour al-Nidhami, 33, along with a dozen men who rode in the back of the truck. When men in uniform stopped them in Sanaa’s Assir neighborhood, near the protest, the men in the back of the truck disembarked. Four armed men in different uniforms bearing Ansar Allah shoulder patches forced al-Bishri to keep driving with the three passengers to the Faj Attan area of Sanaa. The armed men then blindfolded them and drove them to an unknown location and held them until the morning of February 14.

Al-Faqih told Human Rights Watch that their captors put them in into one big room but separated them on February 13:

At 8 p.m., they put us into separate rooms and shackled my hands and feet. They came to me after a few hours and started beating me with an iron rod on my hip while I lay on the floor. I lost consciousness after 30 minutes. At about 2 o’clock the next morning they brought me to a car, where I saw my friends. Al-Bishri was crying in pain and could not stand. I heard one of the armed men say, “We can take him back to beat him for another five hours.” Al-Subari told me that they beat him for about 15 minutes. Al-Nidhami said they did not beat him. They drove us in al-Bishri’s car blindfolded to al-Zubari Street and at about 2:30 a.m. disembarked there and left us with the car.

They drove straight to al-Ahli hospital. Al-Faqih told Human Rights Watch that although a doctor told al-Bishri not to travel, all four were fearful of Ansar Allah coming back for them, so they left. Al-Bishri died along the way back to his village at about 5 a.m. Human Rights Watch saw videos showing his severely bruised hips.

Al-Subari told Human Rights Watch that three or four of his captors shackled and blindfolded him, forced him to kneel, and beat him with sticks for 15 minutes. While beating him they asked how much the United States and Saudi Arabia were paying him to attend the protests, accused him of being an American and a Zionist, and threatened that they would further punish him if he continued to demonstrate, saying, “What you have seen is only a drop of the ocean.”