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Yemen: Detained, Tortured, and Disappeared

Yemenis Describe Illegal Detentions, Abuse by Security Forces


Yemeni security forces have arbitrarily detained dozens of demonstrators and other perceived opponents of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh since anti-government protests began in February 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch documented 37 cases in which security forces have held people for days, weeks, or months without charge, including 20 who were picked up or remained behind bars after the November 2011 power transfer.

Twenty-two former detainees told Human Rights Watch they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including beatings, electric shock, threats of death or rape, and weeks or months in solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch also interviewed relatives of five protesters, opposition fighters, and others who remained forcibly disappeared or held without charge, as well as two people being held in an unregistered jail by the First Armored Division, which defected to the opposition in March 2011. Human Rights Watch called on both government and opposition forces to immediately release everyone they are still arbitrarily detaining.

"There's no serious prospect for a new era of respect for human rights in Yemen as long as security forces can detain anyone they want, outside any semblance of a legal process," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The transition government should ensure that all security forces immediately get out of the illegal detention business."

During a Human Rights Watch visit to the capital, Sanaa, in March and early April, local human rights groups and officials from both Saleh's party and the opposition alleged that many protesters, fighters from both sides, and others apprehended during the uprising were still being held incommunicado. Government and opposition security forces denied to Human Rights Watch that they were unlawfully detaining anyone but each accused the other side of doing so.

Saddam Ayedh al-Shayef, 21, one of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, said men he believes were from the government's National Security Bureau grabbed him from a street in Sanaa on March 4, 2012, and drove him blindfolded to prisons in Sanaa and Aden, where they repeatedly tortured him during a week of incommunicado detention.

"They made me drink my own urine," he said. "When I refused to drink it, they electrocuted me. After I came home, I would dream I was still being tortured and I'd wake up screaming."

Because of limited public information and lack of access to detention facilities, Human Rights Watch has been unable to determine how many people have been or remain detained without charge. Prime Minister Muhamed Salim Basindwa reportedly could not provide a number to youth protesters who met with him on April 12, 2012 to discuss the issue. One prominent official close to former president Saleh told Human Rights Watch that authorities were still holding at least 100 people.

Human Rights Watch called on the new government of President Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi to immediately make public a list of all detainees in the country.

Saleh began transferring power to a transition government on November 23, and Hadi became president following an uncontested vote on February 21. In January, Yemen's caretaker cabinet and a military restructuring committee, headed by Hadi who was then the acting president, ordered the release of all arbitrarily detained prisoners. Both government and opposition security forces freed scores of detainees.

Between February and April, Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 former detainees in Sanaa who were arbitrarily detained in 2011 and early 2012, as well as the relatives of five current detainees and one former detainee. Those detained included anti-government demonstrators, fighters from opposition forces, a human rights defender, and residents of Taizz, Nehm and Arhab, where government forces have clashed with tribal fighters. In February 2011, Human Rights Watch also documented eight cases of enforced disappearance of activists with the Southern Movement, a coalition seeking greater autonomy for southern Yemen.

The former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were held from a few days to 10 months by security and intelligence units including the Republican Guard, the Political Security Organization (PSO), the National Security Bureau (NSB), and the Central Security Organization (CSO). All of these units are run by Saleh relatives and loyalists and, despite Saleh's departure, are still operating largely outside of central government control.

One Presidential Guard officer who defected to the protest movement was taken by fellow Presidential Guards and held for three weeks in February and March 2012 in a cell inside the presidential palace, a relative said.

The two men detained by the First Armored Division were being held in March, when the division was continuing to guard areas around Change Square, a sprawling protest camp in Sanaa, while also guarding President Hadi's house. Government officials and some human rights defenders accused the First Armored Division of unlawfully holding hundreds of perceived government loyalists during the uprising. Human Rights Watch also found that members of the opposition Islah Party were operating an unauthorized jail inside Change Square.

Most former detainees were denied access to lawyers and relatives for most or all of the time they were detained. Several former detainees said they were blindfolded when they were brought to detention centers so they would not know their whereabouts.

An immunity law that Yemen's parliament enacted on January 21 grants blanket amnesty to former president Saleh and immunity for "political" crimes to all those who served with him during his 33-year rule. However, the law does not preclude prosecutions of those responsible for arbitrary detentions, Human Rights Watch said. The law violates Yemen's international legal obligations to prosecute serious violations of human rights and does not shield officials from prosecution for offenses committed since its enactment, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch documented 14 cases of arbitrary arrests and continued detentions without charge after the law was passed.

The United States, European Union, and Gulf states should call for the transfer of all detainees to judicial authorities so they can be freed or charged and prosecuted in impartial and fair proceedings, Human Rights Watch said.

"Reining in Yemen's security forces won't be easy but it's key to instilling rule of law in the country," Whitson said. "Concerned governments should press all sides to free wrongfully held detainees, and ensure those responsible are held accountable."


Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.