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Charlie Hoyle

Tortured, detained, disappeared: UAE abuses rife in southern Yemen

UAE-backed Yemeni security forces have committed a range of egregious detention-related violations [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 July, 2018

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Security forces trained and financed by the United Arab Emirates in southern Yemen have engaged in enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests during the country's war, reveals a new report.
Security forces trained and financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in southern Yemen have engaged in enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests during the country's war, operating in an environment of complete impunity, Amnesty International says.

The UAE is a key member of the Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen's war in 2015 to support the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Since joining the war, it has created and equipped a variety of local security forces known as the Security Belt and Elite forces, which have been widely implicated in a range of shocking abuses.

Although technically part of the security apparatus of the Yemeni government, both the Security Belt and Elite forces – containing some 20,000 fighters – operate outside of its command and control structure, complicating the process of holding them accountable for their crimes.

Last year, an investigation by the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch revealed that the UAE was running a network of informal detention centres in southern Yemen where hundreds of people were detained and tortured as part of counter-terrorism operations directed against al-Qaeda.

An investigation revealed that the UAE was running a network of informal detention centres in southern Yemen where hundreds of people were detained and tortured 

The detainees were only accounted for after they were moved to facilities under the Yemeni Prosecutor General's supervision and families were allowed to visit.

Some of the detainees were released after interrogation, with others referred to trial in Aden. In June and July 2018, scores of detainees were freed months after prosecutors had ordered their release, with many held incommunicado for up to two years without charges.

The authorities failed to disclose the lists of names of detainees who "re-appeared" after they were transferred to official detention and the judiciary was given access to them, nor were their families officially notified.

One year after the UAE prison network was exposed, dozens of detainees still remain unaccounted for and are thought to be held in unofficial detention sites across southern Yemen, with fears many have already died in custody.

'God only knows if he's alive'

Amnesty International has investigated the cases of 51 individuals arbitrarily detained by UAE-backed security forces and the UAE itself between March 2016 and May 2018 in the south Yemen governorates of Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramawt.

Families of the missing detainees, who have never been provided with any information as to their relatives' whereabouts, have routinely inquired with security and government officials about their missing relatives.

In some cases Yemeni security officials acknowledge that their family members are in custody but have not revealed their location.

Other times, they have been told the detainees were transferred to the coalition's custody, off limits to both the public and Yemeni government's oversight.

"Shouldn't they [the detainees] be given a trial? Why else are there courts? They shouldn't be disappeared this way – not only are we unable to visit them, we don’t even know if they are dead or alive," the wife of a detainee who has been held incommunicado for more than two years told Amnesty.

As months, and even years, pass without any official information, families have communicated with prison guards on an unofficial basis and reached out to former detainees for any news.

Although technically part of the security apparatus of the Yemeni government, both the Security Belt and Elite forces - containing some 20,000 fighters - operate outside of its command and control structure

Often they are simply exposed to rumours, unconfirmed reports, or false information, further exacerbating their anguish.

"If they would just confirm to us that my brother is alive, if they would just let us see him, that's all we want," the sister of one detainee, who disappeared in 2016, told Amnesty.

"But we can't get anyone to give us any confirmation. My mother dies a hundred times every day. They don't know what that's like."

'If you run, we will shoot'

Media reports have quoted security officials as saying that at least 13 of the 50 detention cases investigated by Amnesty have described detainees as AQAP members, with others members of the Hadi-affiliated al-Islah party, Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood offshoot.

In Aden, fighters and former volunteers with the anti-Houthi resistance forces have also been detained.

Families, lawyers and officials, however, have told Amnesty that many of the detentions have been completely arbitrary.

Several families said when security forces showed up at their door or picked up their loved ones from the street, someone who appeared to be an informant was in their vehicle, pointing at the person that was arrested.  

Critics of the coalition arrests, including journalists and community activists, have also been arrested.

"There are financial incentives [for arrests] and they also have informants who work for them on the street and get rewarded in exchange. They gather names in a primitive way," a security official told Amnesty International.

In at least five of the cases documented by Amnesty International, families said security forces also stole valuables from them during house raids.

'Unbearable, unimaginable' torture

In addition to the arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, UAE-backed forces and UAE military forces have been implicated in torture and ill-treatment.

One man who was detained at the notorious Waddah Hall detention facility said the head of the counter-terrorism unit in Aden was himself involved in the torture, which included "electric shocks, beatings, waterboarding, hanging from the ceiling."

Witnesses who were held in other UAE facilities also reported being subjected to or witnessing torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual abuse, and the use of prolonged solitary confinement.

Witnesses who were held in other UAE facilities also reported being subjected to or witnessing torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual abuse, and the use of prolonged solitary confinement

In one case earlier this year, the bullet-riddled body of a suspect who had surrendered to a Security Belt force in Abyan turned up dead at a local hospital hours after he was taken into custody.

In another case, the body of a man who arrested from his house by Shabwani Elite Forces was dumped next to his family's house hours after his arrest with visible signs of torture.

He died shortly after being taken to hospital from heavy internal bleeding.

Two senior Interior Ministry officials who spoke to Amnesty said that counter-terrorism operations entirely bypass the Hadi government.

"When you ask the Emiratis [about violations], they say these forces are affiliated to the head of Aden Security … [but] the real power is in the hands of the Emirati officer," a senior security official said.

Amnesty International says there is "significant evidence" that UAE-backed Yemeni security forces and UAE troops in the country have committed a range of egregious detention-related violations, including enforced disappearance torture, and arbitrary detention.

One year after the UAE prison network was exposed, dozens of detainees still remain unaccounted for and are thought to be held in unofficial detention sites across southern Yemen, with fears many have already died in custody

"It is shocking, to say the least, that one year after a network of secret prisons operated by the UAE and the Yemeni forces it backs was exposed, these facilities continue to operate and that there has not been a serious investigation undertaken into credibly documented violations, including systemic torture in custody," the rights group said.

"International counterterrorism partners of the UAE, including the USA and other members of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, have an obligation to ensure that these violations are halted, that they are promptly and impartially investigated, and that victims receive full reparation."


Charlie Hoyle is a Middle East-focused journalist at The New Arab specialising in Palestinian affairs. 

Follow him on Twitter: @CharlieCHoyle

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