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Yemeni Activists Face Reprisals for Speaking Out

Attack on Human Rights Watch Provides a Tiny Glimpse of the Threat

Hadrami elite forces guard Mukalla from Al-Qaeda by creating check-points.  © 2016 Getty Images

One of the many costs of Yemen’s war has been the disappearance of space for the country’s civil society to operate. 

Yemeni activists, journalists, lawyers, and rights defenders worry daily about arrest, slander campaigns, targeted violence, and joining the list of Yemen’s “disappeared.” This is especially so when they criticize one of the parties to the conflict, whose first response is often retaliation.

In areas under Houthi-Saleh control, including the capital, Sanaa, journalists and activists have been detained for more than two years, had their offices looted or closed, and had their friends and family members threatened. In areas where the Hadi government retains authority, particularly near the southern port city of Aden, activists have been beaten up, detained and forcibly disappeared.

After Human Rights Watch released a report on the role of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and their Yemeni allies in disappearances and torture in Aden and Hadramawt, we also came under public attack. Local news sites leaked a copy of my passport, alleged we had done the research at the behest of Yemeni officials aligned with Qatar or the Yemeni Islah party, and claimed we engaged in various forms of subterfuge to enter the country, publishing false information for political purposes, to undercut the UAE.

The UAE and Yemen should credibly investigate our findings, rather than make baseless allegations. We had previously researched Houthi-Saleh detentions – documenting children arbitrarily detained, men tortured, families torn apart when relatives were disappeared. Here, we investigated because we heard, again and again, of gross abuses in southern and eastern Yemen.

Over six months, we documented 49 cases of abuse, conducting dozens of interviews and talking to lawyers, activists, family members of detainees, former detainees and government officials. We hoped to visit Aden to discuss our concerns with officials but were temporarily suspended from using United Nations flights, later learning the Saudi-led coalition was further restricting access to Yemen. So, we sent letters to the Hadi government and the UAE, laying out our findings and asking for their responses. They haven’t replied.

We published our findings because the “missing” file is growing across Yemen and families deserve to know where their sons, brothers, and husbands are. Yemenis themselves are saying this – look to the protests held from Sanaa to Mukalla or the work of relentless activists to highlight these abuses.

The attacks on Human Rights Watch provide a tiny glimpse into the troubling and infinitely more harmful ways the warring parties are trying to undercut or intimidate courageous Yemeni rights activists. As Yemen faces the triple threat of war, famine, and disease – 300,000 cases of cholera recorded just this week – all sides need to allow civil society to flourish. Yemen needs its activists more than ever.    

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