(Beirut) – Houthi forces apparently used unnecessary lethal force against demonstrators in Taizz and al-Turbba on March 24, 2015. Houthi authorities should immediately investigate the incidents, in which at least 7 people were killed and more than 83 others were injured. Houthi commanders should make sure their forces comply with international law enforcement standards when dealing with demonstrations.

In Taizz, Yemen’s third largest city, Houthi fighters and government security forces fired without warning on a crowd of at least 1,000 protesters, killing or fatally injuring at least 4 and wounding more than 70 others, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. A similarly mixed force, including snipers, opened fire on about 100 demonstrators in al-Turbba, a town 70 kilometers from Taizz, killing 3 and wounding at least 10 others.

“Yemen’s spiraling conflict is causing a calamitous breakdown in law and order,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Security forces in control, whatever side they are on, have responsibilities to uphold and protect people’s rights and to take action against their members who commit abuses.”

In January, Ansar Allah, a Zaidi Shia group from the far northern part of the country known as the Houthis, ousted the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, sparking widespread protests. On February 8, Yemen’s interim interior minister, citing “the exceptional circumstances” prevailing in Yemen, ordered police in Sanaa, the capital, to prevent all unauthorized demonstrations. This indefinite ban on public protests violates the right to peaceful assembly. Since January, Ansar Allah, and security and police forces have arbitrarily arrested and increasingly used excessive force against protesters and journalists covering demonstrations.

Daily protests calling for Ansar Allah to cease using Taizz as a base for military operations on southern Yemen started on March 22.

An activist, Ola al-Aghbari, 23, told Human Rights Watch that starting at about 11:30 a.m. on March 24, at least 1,000 had peacefully gathered in front of the Arab Bank main branch in Taizz. About half-an-hour later, al-Aghbari saw dozens of armed men, some in traditional Houthi clothing bearing Houthi slogans, and others in uniforms of the Yemeni Special Security Forces (SSF), surround the crowd and open fire without any warning or order to disperse.

She told Human Rights Watch that she was not hit but that she went immediately to Ibn Sina Hospital: “The hospital was full of people suffering from gunshot wounds. I saw one man with a bullet through his neck, another woman, a first aid volunteer, got shrapnel in her left eye. One man caught a bullet that tore through his intestines … he died the next day.”

Another witness to the protest told Human Rights Watch that some protesters began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, but only after the security forces opened fire.

Muhammad Adnan, a volunteer who helped transport wounded protesters to hospitals on his motorbike, told Human Rights Watch: “I transported 10 gunshot victims, including a man with a terrible gunshot wound to his head, another man with a bullet that went through his knee, and two other men shot in their hands.”

The statistics officer at Taizz’s Ibn Sina Hospital said that the hospital had received 73 patients with gunshot wounds. Mithaq Turboosh, a nurse at the hospital, said that most of the gunshot wound patients he and his colleagues received had wounds in their arms and legs, but that at least 10 had been shot in the neck, chest, or head. Ambulances transferred most of the seriously wounded to other hospitals after they had been stabilized.

Medical authorities reported that four protesters died, each at one of four major hospitals in the city. Following the March 24 incident, the governor of Taizz announced his resignation.

In al-Turbba, men believed to be Houthis and others in SSF uniforms opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters from an Ansar Allah office, killing 3 and wounding 10. Abu Bakr Abdullah al-Asbahi, 42, a teacher who was at the protest, told Human Rights Watch that at least 100 people assembled by 10:30 a.m. and began marching peacefully from al-Nasr square to a military checkpoint to protest the arrival in town of about 150 members of the SSF.

Al-Asbahi said that as they approached the checkpoint near the entrance to the town, about 20 armed men bearing Houthi slogans withdrew to the Ansar Allah office about 20 meters away. Then, without warning, unidentified gunmen opened fire on the protesters from the office’s second-floor windows and from the street in front of the office’s door. Three men were fatally shot, said Al-Asbahi and another activist who attended their funerals, and at least 10 others who survived had bullet and shrapnel wounds. A fourth man died when a car driven by an SSF officer collided with his motorcycle, perhaps accidentally, Al-Asbahi said.

Ansar Allah, the SSF, and all other forces involved in policing demonstrations and other law enforcement measures in Yemen should abide at all times with relevant international human rights standards, notably the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

The Basic Principles provide that all security forces shall as far as possible use nonviolent means before resorting to force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people except in self-defense or to protect others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.

As Ansar Allah forces advanced into Aden and other southern areas of Yemen, on March 26 a Saudi-led coalition began a campaign of airstrikes against them, hitting Sanaa, Saada, Hodaida, Taizz, Lahj, al-Dale`a, and Aden. The ground fighting and airstrikes are governed by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. However, even during armed conflict, international human rights law remains in effect. Parties in effective control of areas should apply human rights law to law enforcement situations.

“Houthi and other commanders engaged in the fighting in Yemen should recognize that they may be held accountable for unlawful killings and other abuses their forces commit,” Stork said. “Troops need to understand that when dealing with protests, they need to apply the rules of law enforcement.”