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ECHR | Emirates Center for Human Rights

HRW report: UAE supports Yemeni forces that have detained, disappeared, tortured, dozens of people

HomeReports and ArticlesHRW report: UAE supports Yemeni forces that have detained, disappeared, tortured, dozens of peopleHRW report: UAE supports Yemeni forces that have detained, disappeared, tortured, dozens of people

HRW report: UAE supports Yemeni forces that have detained, disappeared, tortured, dozens of people

The UAE supports Yemeni forces that have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused dozens of people during security operations, Human Rights Watch said today. The UAE finances, arms, and trains these forces, which ostensibly are going after Yemeni branches of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The UAE also runs at least two informal detention facilities, and its officials appear to have ordered the continued detention of people despite release orders, and forcibly disappeared people, including reportedly moving high-profile detainees outside the country.

Human Rights Watch has documented the cases of 49 people, including four children, who have been arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared in the Aden and Hadramawt governates of Yemen over the last year. At least 38 appear to have been arrested or detained by UAE-backed security forces. Multiple sources, including Yemeni government officials, have reported the existence of numerous informal detention facilities and secret prisons in Aden and Hadramawt, including at least two run by the UAE and others run by UAE-backed Yemeni security forces. Human Rights Watch documented people held at 11 such sites in the two governorates.


“You don’t effectively fight extremist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS by disappearing dozens of young men and constantly adding to the number of families with ‘missing’ loved ones in Yemen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE and its partners should place protecting detainee rights at the center of their security campaigns if they care about Yemen’s long-term stability.”


Since March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of states, including the UAE, has conducted an aerial and ground campaign in support of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi against Houthi forces and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took over the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The US has provided military support to the coalition.

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed family members and friends of detainees, former detainees, lawyers, activists, and government officials. Human Rights Watch also reviewed documents, videos, and pictures provided by lawyers and activists, as well as letters sent by lawyers or family members to various Yemeni and coalition authorities.

During the conflict, Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) seized weapons, territory, and revenue by looting the central bank in Mukalla, the capital of the Hadramawt governate, and running the city’s port for about a year, Reuters reported. AQAP has carried out numerous attacks, primarily on military and security targets in Yemen’s southern and eastern governorates, killing dozens of people. The local ISIS affiliate in Yemen (IS-Y) has also claimed responsibility for similar attacks over the last two years.

The UAE has led counterterror efforts against AQAP and ISIS’s local affiliate (IS-Y), including by supporting Yemeni forces carrying out security campaigns in southern and eastern parts of the country. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by some of these forces – including forces known as the “Security Belt” that operate in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, and other southern governorates and the “Hadrami Elite Forces” that operate in Hadramawt.

The Security Belt and Hadrami Elite forces have used excessive force during arrests and raids, detained family members of wanted suspects to pressure them to “voluntarily” turn themselves in, arbitrarily arrested and detained men and boys, detained children with adults, and forcibly disappeared dozens. As one former detainee said he was told by another detainee in one of Aden’s many informal detention facilities: “This is a no-return prison.”

The UAE is reported to run some of these detention facilities and to have moved high-profile detainees outside the country, including to a base it has in Eritrea.

Former detainees and family members also told Human Rights Watch that some detainees had been abused or tortured inside detention facilities, most often through heavy beatings with officers using their fists, their guns or other metal objects. Others mentioned electric shocks, forced nudity, threats to the detainees or their family members, and caning on the feet.

One man, who was able to visit a detained relative, a child, in Aden, said the boy “looked insane” when he emerged from a crowded cell. He later disappeared from the detention center.

Houthi-Saleh forces have also arbitrarily detained and disappeared scores of people in northern Yemen. Human Rights Watch has separately documented abuse in Houthi-Saleh run detention facilities.

All parties carrying out detentions in Yemen should immediately stop forcibly disappearing, arbitrarily detaining, or torturing detainees, Human Rights Watch said. They should release anyone arbitrarily detained or detained for involvement in peaceful political activities, including especially vulnerable people such as children. They should immediately provide a list of all detention sites and of everyone currently in detention or who have died in custody.

People taken into custody during a civil war are entitled to the fundamental protections that all detainees should have, including being promptly brought before an independent authority, like a judge, provided specific reasons for their detention, and given the ability to contest the detention. Anyone not being prosecuted for a criminal offense may only be held for exceptional reasons of security, set out clearly in domestic law, and must be released as soon as the reasons for the deprivation of their liberty cease to exist. All such detainees should be brought promptly before a judge. Detention under such circumstances should be reviewed at least every six months.

Every detainee must be treated humanely at all times. Visits from family members must be allowed if practicable. Under applicable human rights law, children should be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. In all cases, children should be held separately from adults, unless they are detained with their family.

The ban against torture and other ill-treatment is one of the most fundamental prohibitions in international human rights and humanitarian law. No exceptional circumstances may justify torture, and states are required to investigate and prosecute those responsible for torture.

Yemen is obliged to ensure that the Security Belt and Hadrami Elite Forces, as well as any other forces operating with the Yemeni government’s consent, comply with relevant legal requirements and procedural safeguards, including taking active steps to prevent disappearances, such as through regularizing the procedure of registering detainees and notifying family members of their whereabouts. The UAE has similar obligations, given its role in detentions.

The US works closely with the UAE in its efforts against AQAP, and members of the US government have repeatedly praised the UAE. In 2016, the US deployed a small number of special operations forces to Yemen to assist UAE efforts against the armed group. The US has also reportedly conducted joint raids with the UAE against AQAP in central and eastern Yemen, according to the New York Times and the Intercept. Human Rights Watch investigated a January raid in al-Bayda governorate that killed at least 14 civilians, including nine children.

“Wives, mothers, and daughters in the north and south of Yemen want to know whether their husbands, sons, and brothers are all right, if they are even alive,” Whitson said. “Yemen, the UAE, Houthi-Saleh forces, and any other party disappearing people should immediately inform families of where their loved ones are and release those held arbitrarily.”

Because of the danger of reprisals against those who spoke with Human Rights Watch or against their families, pseudonyms are used below and identifying details have been removed. All participants were informed of the purpose of the interview, the ways in which the data would be used, and given assurances of anonymity. The UAE leads coalition efforts in southern and eastern Yemen, including its counterterror operations. People interviewed by Human Rights Watch used “UAE” and “coalition” interchangeably to describe the UAE and its role in the detention campaigns.

A Web of Secret Detention Sites

Yemeni human rights groups and lawyers have documented hundreds of cases of people arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared in areas of Yemen formally under the control of the internationally recognized government of President Hadi. Other security forces – beyond those that are UAE-backed – have also been implicated in abuses. The southern port city of Aden, for example, is currently home to multiple, often competing, security forces and militias. While technically under the Interior Ministry, these forces operate with separate command and control structures, with units aligned to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. These forces are arresting and detaining people, and operating unofficial detention sites, local activists, journalists, and lawyers say.

One man described to Human Rights Watch a recent protest calling on the UAE and Hadrami Elite Forces to reveal the whereabouts of the disappeared: “There were small kids saying release our dads. We were writing on the posters that we are against terrorism, but terrorism is also taking people in this way.”

There are multiple informal and secret detention facilities in Aden, Hadramawt, and the areas of the country under Houthi-Saleh control to which independent monitors, lawyers and families of detainees have not been granted access. All parties running detention facilities in Yemen should provide immediate access to detention facilities, official and unofficial, for monitors of detention conditions, lawyers, medics, human rights monitors, and families, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international human rights law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities take someone into custody and deny holding them or fail to disclose their fate or whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are at greater risk of torture and other ill-treatment, especially when they are detained outside formal detention facilities, such as police jails and prisons.

Possible Transfers Outside Yemen

Human Rights Watch was not able to verify these claims, but according to lawyers and activists, as well as relatives of men who had been disappeared, the UAE was transferring high-level detainees outside of Yemen. According to one of the activists, about 15 people accused of being members of AQAP or IS-Y had been transferred to the base the UAE has been developing in Eritrea’s port city, Assab, over the past two years. A man whose relatives had been disappeared said at least five officials told him the UAE transferred the men outside of Yemen, including three who said the men were being held in Eritrea.

In 2016, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported on “the rapid construction of what appears to be a military base with permanent structures” at Assab. According to security analysts, the base includes its own port, airbase, and a military training facility, where the UAE has trained Yemeni forces, including the Security Belt and Hadrami Elite Forces, according to the Middle East Institute. The UN Monitoring Group also reported that the base has “expanded to encompass not only personnel from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but also Yemeni troops and other troops in transit.”

Yemen is responsible for taking all reasonable steps to protect the well-being of anyone they transfer to the UAE or other governments or groups. Anyone being transferred out of a country should be able to contest the transfer in that country’s courts. Transfers cannot be made if the person would likely face torture or other major human rights abuses.

The UAE-Backed Security Belt in Aden

In Aden, many of those arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared were arrested by the Security Belt, a force created in spring 2016. It is officially under the Interior Ministry but is funded, trained, and directed by the UAE, said several activists, lawyers, and government officials. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen and a Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) report found that the Security Belt operated largely outside the Yemeni government’s control.

In dozens of interviews, people detained by the Security Belt or detainees’ family members said Security Belt officers claimed they were following UAE orders in detaining terrorism suspects and that they lacked the authority to release detainees without specific UAE authorization. A former detainee said a high-ranking Security Belt Commander told him he had initially trusted the UAE was detaining suspects based on strong intelligence but he had increasingly come to believe not everyone they arrested was in fact linked to extremist groups.

A man whose brother was arrested in July 2016 said a Security Belt officer told him the UAE has given the Security Belt orders, including a list of names of people to arrest, and that after their arrest the UAE would decide what to do with them. The UAE did not provide the Security Belt with the charges or accusations against the men, he said.

The Security Belt has arbitrarily arrested and abused dozens of people. Several families reported that the security forces, including the Security Belt, had used excessive force when carrying out arrests, including beating men with their guns and forcing entry into homes. The Security Belt has also arrested suspects’ family members when unable to find the person they hoped to arrest to pressure the actual suspect to turn himself in.

Muneer and Kareem: One night in the autumn of 2016, Security Belt officers came at 2 a.m. to the family home of “Kareem” and “Muneer,” both in their twenties, intending to arrest Muneer. Muneer was not home, so the Security Belt officers blindfolded Kareem, took him to a nearby camp and interrogated him. After a few hours, the men dumped a still blindfolded Kareem in a location he could not immediately identify. When he discovered where he was, he walked home. A family member said he “was very scared” when he arrived. The next day, Muneer surrendered at the Central Prison. Prison officials told Muneer’s father his son’s file was “with the coalition.” The general prosecutor issued a release order for Muneer. The prosecutor’s office told the family they could not secure his release, as the authorities did not respect their orders.

Laith and Hamid: One night in the autumn of 2016 at about 2:30 a.m., Security Belt forces came to the home of “Hamid” looking to arrest his son, “Laith.” When they could not find him, they kicked and beat Hamid. An officer also hit Hamid’s wife with his rifle. They blindfolded Hamid, kicked him again when he tried to loosen the blindfold, then detained him, beating him again and released him, telling him to bring his son. He told Human Rights Watch: “Yes, I promised to take my son to them and I did the following day. I’m really very sorry for my son because if I knew he would be detained for this long I would never have taken him to them.” Laith remains in detention.

Secret Prisons, Mistreatment of Detainees in Aden

Aden has two official detention facilities, the Central Prison and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). In February 2017, the CID was holding about 220 people and the Central Prison about 231 terrorism detainees and 480 criminal detainees, according to the prosecutor’s office.

While the court system in Aden is largely not functioning, the prosecutor’s office is continuing to issue release orders for people if there is insufficient evidence to detain them. The prosecution’s orders are often not respected, particularly concerning terrorism cases, which is “where the power of the prosecutor stops,” a prosecutor said. Families, lawyers, and government officials repeatedly said that people arrested by the Security Belt whose case files were “with the coalition” were most likely to remain detained despite a prosecutorial release order even in the official sites.

The Central Prison is divided into criminal cases, controlled by a prison director, and terrorism cases, overseen by a Security Belt officer who was appointed by and reports to UAE officers in Aden, said analysts, activists, and lawyers in Aden. One man previously detained in the Central Prison said that at least four people in the prison ward with him had release orders, but they remained detained because, they were told, “the coalition” refused to let them out. He, and two other men detained with him, said that prison officials said that the Security Belt ran the prison and they reported to the UAE.

In late 2016, the general prosecutor’s office issued release orders for 27 people who had been arrested by the Security Belt and detained on suspicion of terrorism. By February 2017, 10 had been released. The Security Belt officers in the prison told the office the remaining 17 could not be released without an order from the coalition, as they had been arrested by the Security Belt and thus fell under coalition control. Soon after, the prosecutor’s office identified 35 additional detainees, all also accused of terrorism, for release. Three lawyers said that the prison director told them in a meeting he could not release certain people, even if they had release orders, as the decision rested with the coalition.

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