(Beirut) – Southern armed groups and Houthi forces battling for control of Yemen’s port city of Aden have committed serious abuses against civilians and fighters in their custody. Southern militants have summarily executed at least seven Houthi prisoners since March 2015, most recently on August 24. Houthi forces have unlawfully detained and mistreated civilians.
The exiled Yemeni government, as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other members of the Saudi-led coalition supporting the southern armed groups, should press local authorities in Aden to end abuses and appropriately punish those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
“Southern forces that have regained control of Aden should end abuses against prisoners and do all they can to establish law and order in the city,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The Houthis need to release anyone wrongfully detained and account for everyone they are holding.”
The Houthis, a Shia armed group also known as Ansar Allah, have sought to expand their control over southern Yemen since capturing the capital, Sanaa, and effectively ousting President Abdu Rabu Mansour in January. Southern forces opposed to the Houthis have fought to retain control of Aden. In July, Houthi forces retreated from areas of Aden under their control, though fighting continues further north in the cities of Taizz and Lahj.
Southern forces were holding at least 255 Houthi prisoners, including children who said they were combatants, in official and unofficial detention facilities in and around Aden, Human Rights Watch said.
In the most recent incident, on August 24, southern forces took a Houthi prisoner to a public square and beat him, encouraging bystanders to join in, then shot and killed him, a witness told Human Rights Watch. The day before, southern forces put a group of Houthi prisoners on a boat in the port of Aden and blew up the boat.
Houthi forces have threatened captured southern fighters and held them in harsh conditions. The Houthis have also detained civilians, including aid workers, and taken the medical supplies and other goods they were transporting. Southern forces expected to find many detainees when they stormed a Houthi base in Aden on August 8, but the whereabouts of some detainees held by Houthis remain unknown.
All parties to Yemen’s armed conflict are bound by common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the customary laws of war, which provide for the humane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Common article 3 prohibits summary executions, torture and other cruel treatment, and outrages upon personal dignity. It requires providing care for the sick and wounded and encourages access to detainees by humanitarian organizations.
The parties should treat captured combatants and civilians in their custody humanely, Human Rights Watch said. Civilians should be released unless they pose a serious security risk, but in any case, should have access to their families and humanitarian aid organizations. Parties holding anyone in custody have an obligation to provide for their safety and well-being. If it is necessary to detain children, they should not be held with adults. All parties should facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance by impartial humanitarian agencies.
Those responsible for the mistreatment of detainees may be prosecuted for war crimes, including commanders who knew or should have known of the ill-treatment and took no action to prevent, stop, or punish it. Parties should appropriately punish members of their forces responsible for abuses.
Since southern fighters regained control over Aden in July, the Yemeni government based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has sent several ministers there on short trips and announced that the city would act as the new Yemeni capital for the next five years. According to international press reports, several thousand Emirati troops have landed in Aden since July and are playing a key role in supporting Saudi and Yemeni ground forces there. The Yemeni government has recruited 4,800 southern fighters to integrate into the Yemeni armed forces, media reports say, while the UAE plans to reinstate 2000 policemen, including some fighters.
“Before integrating fighters into the Yemeni security forces, the authorities in Aden and governments backing them should set up a system to reject any recruit implicated in serious human rights abuses,” Whitson said.
Executions by Southern Militants
On August 23, southern extremist fighters brought an unidentified group of Houthi prisoners in orange jumpsuits out on a boat into the middle of the port of Aden and blew the boat up, according to reports received by Human Rights Watch. They reportedly filmed the explosion to the backdrop of the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, flags raised on the port buildings, prompting the media to report that the Islamist armed group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had taken control of the port.
On August 24 at about 4 p.m., a dozen southern fighters brought a Houthi prisoner into a main square in the Crater district in Aden, according to a shopkeeper who witnessed the incident. They formed a circle around him and started beating him with their hands and sticks. Local residents began to gather and the fighters encouraged them to join in. “When he was almost at the point of death, they stopped beating him and started shooting at him, one with a machine gun,” the witness told Human Rights Watch. “The bullets killed him.” At least five other people in the crowd, including some fighters, were injured by ricocheting bullets. Staff at a local medical center confirmed they treated 13 people wounded in the incident, 3 gravely.
Human Rights Watch previously reported that southern fighters in March had summarily executed two wounded Houthi officers who were patients at an Aden hospital. Staff at the hospital later told Human Rights Watch that the southern fighters also removed three other Houthis at that time, then executed them.
In July, southern fighters executed another Houthi prisoner after detaining him for several days at the Aden Refinery Hospital, a security guard and nurse at the hospital told Human Rights Watch. They said that on July 12 the southern fighters had brought in two Houthis they had captured in fighting, one of whom they took away after several days and said they had executed on open ground near the hospital. The other prisoner was a young boy who said he was under 10 years old, the nurse and guard said. On July 14, southern forces took him from the hospital to another local clinic, and later released him, which Human Rights Watch was able to confirm.
In mid-August, Human Rights Watch visited a detention facility operated by southern forces – a school that became a makeshift prison. It held about 140 detainees, according to the man running the facility. He said that children ages 13-16 were held together in one room and kept separate, for their own safety, from boys and young men ages 16-21, who were held together in another room. Human Rights Watch saw about 25 detainees who appeared to be about 15 or younger.
Human Rights Watch was not permitted to inspect the rooms used as cells or interview prisoners, so it was not possible to learn about their treatment or detention conditions. Human Rights Watch also was not able to determine whether these children had in fact been enlisted by the Houthis into their forces.
Yemen is a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on armed conflict, which prohibits warring parties from deploying anyone under 18. Armed forces, whether states or non-state groups, should not use schools for military purposes, including as places of detention, Human Rights Watch said.
Unlawful Detention and Mistreatment by Houthi Forces
Muhammad Bin Muhammad Ali, who fought against the Houthis, told Human Rights Watch that Houthi forces captured him and 22 other fighters in April during fighting in Aden. They held the group at al-Anad Military Base in nearby Lahj, which the Houthis had captured. Ali told Human Rights Watch that his Houthi captors held him and about 50 other men in an underground ammunition store in total darkness and extremely hot conditions. While in detention, several of his Houthi captors threatened to cut off his limbs, while brandishing a knife, but did not physically harm him, he said.
Three days after his capture, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition bombed the area. When the corrugated metal wall of Ali’s cell was damaged, he escaped. He said other captured fighters did not escape with him and he has no news of them.
Houthi forces have continued to unlawfully detain aid workers and confiscate relief supplies, as Human Rights Watch has previously documented. On April 5, Houthi forces detained Muhammad Abd al-Wasa, an aid worker, and his colleague Sadeq al-Kumeri, while they were transporting medical supplies from Buraiqah to Muaala, both neighborhoods in Aden, al-Wasa said. Houthi forces seized the supplies they were transporting and detained and interrogated them, accusing them of being affiliated with ISIS. One of their guards allowed them to escape on April 20.
On April 7, at a checkpoint, the Houthis stopped a volunteer aid worker with a medical organization and two others who were taking medical supplies to a clinic in Muaala, according to Omar al-Hadar, 19, who was later detained with them. The aid worker told al-Hadar that the Houthis had accused them of bringing the medical supplies, which the Houthis seized, to southern forces. The captors finally released al-Hadar, but he said Houthi commanders had denied all knowledge of the aid workers when his family inquired, and the fate and whereabouts of the aid worker and the two others remains unknown.
Muaad Nabil Saleh told Human Rights Watch that Houthi forces at the al-Alam checkpoint on the road from Aden to Abyan stopped his car at 8 a.m. on June 22. He was driving his cousins Saleh Ahmad al-Quashashi, 26, and Omar Saleh al-Hibshi, 25, and al-Hibshi’s mother out of Aden to escape the fighting. They forced al-Quashashi and al-Hibshi out of the car and told Saleh to drive away with the mother and threatened to shoot him if he did not obey. The family tried to contact Houthi commanders, who said they had no information about the two men, and their whereabouts are unknown.