(Beirut) – A new agreement merging the Yemeni government and Southern Transitional Council (STC) security forces in Yemen fails to address serious human rights issues, Human Rights Watch said today. In the months preceding the signing of the agreement in Riyadh on November 5, 2019, STC forces arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared at least 40 people, including a child, in the southern governorate of Aden. At least 15 of these people were released in September after being held 2 or more weeks.
The promised-to-be merged Saudi-backed Yemeni government and STC security forces, supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), should immediately free people arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared. They should compensate the victims and appropriately punish officials who carried out or oversaw these abuses.
“The Riyadh agreement doesn’t address the enduring problem of Yemeni security forces abusing local residents with impunity,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The parties to the agreement need to start rebuilding the trust that has all but vanished due to abuses by these security agencies.”
The STC is a political group assembled in 2017 that demands the establishment of “a sovereign independent federal state” in southern Yemen. It has often competed for influence with the Yemeni government and is currently led by Aidrous al-Zoubaidi, who serves as the group’s president. In a written response to Human Rights Watch questions on these abuses, the STC denied they arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared civilians.
The Riyadh agreement states that UAE-backed STC security forces will be incorporated into the Ministries of Interior and Defense, which will ultimately be under the authority of the internationally recognized Yemen government. This process was supposed to be completed within 30 days of the agreement’s signing on November 5. At time of writing, there has been no clear progress towards this agreement requirement.
The Riyadh agreement stipulates that a Saudi-led coalition committee will be created to monitor and implement the terms of the agreement. This committee should ensure that a newly formed Interior Ministry meets its human rights obligations, and a new interior minister should carry out a full review of detainees and release those wrongfully held. The minister should also allow and facilitate visits from international monitors to detention centers and investigate alleged abuses.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led a coalition of countries in a military campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen to restore the power of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Tensions between the Hadi-led Yemeni government and UAE-backed security forces in the south have been mounting since 2017, as UAE-backed forces have challenged Yemeni government forces for control over various areas. The UAE announced in late June the withdrawal of most of its ground troops from Yemen, but UAE-backed Yemeni troops have continued to commit abuses there.
The killing of a senior commander in the UAE-backed Security Belt force, Munir Al-Yafa’i (known as Abu Alyamamah), on August 1 sparked new fighting between STC and Yemeni government forces. Although the Houthis claimed responsibility for killing Alyamamah, the UAE and the STC blamed Islamist forces in the Yemeni government for aiding in a Houthi offensive leading to violence and deadly clashes. Scores of civilians were wounded in the fighting, according to a United Nations report in August.
Human Rights Watch documented the cases of 40 people, including 1 child, who have been arbitrarily detained during clashes between STC and Yemeni government forces in August and September. The names of 25 people, not including the child, could be verified from lists provided by local rights groups and lawyers. At least 15 of them had been apprehended by the UAE-affiliated Counter-Terrorism Security forces in Aden Branch led by Yusran Hamazah al-Maqtari, according to an informed source. Local rights groups confirmed that at least 10 people were detained by UAE-affiliated Security Belt forces. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify where these people are detained currently, but they were picked up in various districts in Aden, including Bureika, Khormaksar, and al-Mualla. STC security forces released 15 of these 40 detainees, including the child, in September.
Witnesses, whose names are withheld for security reasons, described to Human Rights Watch various abuses by these UAE-backed security forces in recent months.
A 33-year-old office worker affiliated with Islah, an Islamist political party, said that on August 30, he was going to the Sheikh Othman district when friends told him “Security Belt forces were coming to arrest [him]” so, he said, “I didn’t go home.” His relatives told him that armed men tried to enter the house but were told to leave by women guests gathered for his brother’s upcoming wedding.
His family thought it was safe, but after the guests left, he said:
“Security Belt forces raided the house violently and pointed their guns at my sister and my mother. They went to my room and searched my stuff. They took my laptop, my MA degree certificate, and books. They detained my younger brother. My other brothers escaped. We canceled the wedding party that was supposed to be the next day. We didn’t know my brother’s whereabouts for two weeks, until he was released in mid-September.”
A witness said that STC security forces also have raided and took over the office of at least one newspaper in Aden, which is now under STC control.
A human rights activist in Aden said that in August, weeks after the fighting between Yemeni government forces and the STC erupted, the city of Aden had turned into a ghost town: “Many shops and sellers closed down, fearing the burning of their shops … [and] several shops were burned or attacked by armed forces because the [owners] were from the north [of Yemen].”
Witnesses said that during clashes between STC and Yemeni government forces in August, they saw unidentified armed men attack property and stores of residents in Aden considered to be “northerners,” including damaging or ransacking bakeries and attacking people who sell goods on sidewalks and streets (bastat). Two witnesses said that in August, security forces refused to let Yemenis into the city based solely on their perceived “northern” identity. In several other instances in August, witnesses said, Security Belt forces stopped men at the Jabel Hadeed checkpoint between Khormaksar and al-Mualla districts and denied them entry to the city.
Several residents expressed concern that rhetoric from politicians and officials encouraged reprisal attacks against Yemenis from the north. A video from early August that Human Rights Watch reviewed showed a senior government official, Zeinab al-Qaissi, the secretary general of the Women’s Development Division at the Yemen Ministry of Public Health and Population, driving a car with security men and shouting that northerners in the south should be killed. “You northerners leave our country,” she is shown as saying. “If I find one of you, northerners, I will slaughter you from the back of your neck. Thirty of you were killed today.”
In response to a letter from Human Rights Watch inquiring about alleged abuses committed during the clashes between STC and Yemeni government forces in August, a member of the STC’s presidential committee denied the arbitrary detention and forcible disappearance of civilians by its forces, writing, “If arrests of individuals occurred during that period, we consider those individuals ‘prisoners of war’ as they were militants, as some belonged to the Yemeni military forces, and others to terrorist organizations: the Islamic State (Da’esh) and al-Qaeda.” Human Rights Watch also reached out to the Yemeni government inquiring into alleged arbitrary detention of civilians and abuses against local residents but had not received a response.
The STC’s written response also noted the existence of a “hotline” telephone number for them to receive local residents’ complaints and reports on human rights abuses, but multiple sources in Aden told Human Rights Watch that they were not aware of any “hotline” number to submit complaints of rights abuses by STC forces during the August clashes.
Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by UAE-backed security forces, including the use of excessive force during arrests, detaining family members of suspects to pressure their surrender, arbitrarily detaining men and boys, detaining children with adults, and forcibly disappearing dozens. In a September report, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen found that UAE and UAE-backed forces practiced arbitrary detention and torture, including sexual violence, in detention facilities they controlled.
In its response letter, the STC’s presidential committee said that once their security forces are incorporated into the Yemen government’s forces as stipulated in the Riyadh agreement, the STC will ensure the security forces would protect human rights and prevent violations.
“The STC’s promises to protect rights are a small step forward but far from sufficient given their record of serious abuses,” Page said. “The STC, along with the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition, now have an opportunity after the Riyadh agreement to rebuild trust with local residents and prioritize the protection of fundamental rights. They shouldn’t squander it.”