Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Illegal and Brutal Detainment Lives on in Yemen

NEW YORK, May 7 2012 (IPS) - “They made me drink my own urine,” said one former detainee, Addam Ayedh al-Shayef, describing his experiences in detainment in Yemen. “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.”

Shayef and nearly two dozen other former detainees told their stories to the rights group Human Rights Watch, which released a news report today on the illegal detention of opposition protestors, fighters and sympathisers, and opponents of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh since protests began in February 2011.

Since that time, Human Rights Watch found, people were detained for days, weeks and even months by security forces and usually denied access to attorneys, with no ability to visit with relatives and without adequate food and shelter.

During detainment, prisoners were subjected to beatings, electric shock, death or rape threats, and long periods of solitary confinement.

The organisation spoke with both former detainees and relatives of protestors and opposition fighters. Its report incorporated vivid accounts by former detainees of their experiences in detainment after the group documented 37 cases of arbitrary detainment.

Shayef, 21, said that men he believed to be from the government’s National Security Bureau grabbed him from a street in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, on March 4 of this year. In prisons in Sanaa and Aden, a port city in the south of the country, they repeatedly tortured him for a week.

How many more accounts are similar to Addam Ayedh al-Shayef’s story? According to Human Rights Watch, that fact is difficult to ascertain, due to limited accessibility to public information and little to no access to detention facilities, even though a new transition government is in power.

Security forces and intelligence agencies have even prevented government officials, including Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour, and lawyers from accessing detention centers, according to the report. Mashhour said she believed that dozens are still being held in arbitrary detainment, including by opposition forces.

Lip service

In January, Yemen’s transitional cabinet and a military restructuring committee headed by Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi, who was the sole candidate for and winner of the presidency in February, ordered the release of those arbitrarily detained.

Yet even after this order, about 100 detainees still need to be released. “I honestly think many sectors of the government do not know how many people are being held,” Human Rights Watch spokesperson Letta Tayler told IPS.

Human Rights Watch still managed to gather information and accounts from former detainees, finding that detainees had been kept from a few days to ten months by security and intelligence units that were run by relatives of former president Saleh and even now generally remain outside of the government’s control.

Meanwhile an immunity law enacted on January 21, under the transitional government, gives amnesty to former president Saleh for his political crimes as well as those who served under him during his 33- year rule.

“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,” said the report.

Furthermore, when Human Rights Watch visited Sanaa earlier this year, many local human rights groups and officials said that people were still being detained and kept out of communication, by both government and opposition forces, even as both sides denied doing so.

In the news report, Human Rights Watch called for “the United States, the European Union, and the Gulf states (to) call for the transfer of all detainees to judicial authorities so they can be freed or charged and prosecuted in impartial and fair proceedings”.

“I think many countries around the world want to see stability in Yemen,” said Tayler.

However, Tayler noted, the problem is that there are security concerns, which tend to come first. “What you see happening is there is less focus on human rights because of security issues. Yemen has a very active branch of Al-Qaeda and if there is ever reason for concern, human rights and security can go hand in hand.”

The typical person detained is considered to be from one of four broad categories, said Tayler. These categories include foes of the fallen government, opposition protestors or fighters, or members of government forces; sympathizers, even if they are not protestors; those people who hailed from cities or towns that were flash points of opposition to the government; and fighters from opposition forces.

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