Arbitrary detentions, torture of inmates and deaths of detainees have soared during the last few years of Yemen’s civil war, according to a new report that found all parties of the conflict responsible for human rights abuses that could amount to war crimes.
The investigation spanning four years by Yemeni rights group Mwatana delves into the grim world of nearly a dozen unofficial detention centres run by Iran-backed Houthi rebels as well as their foes: armed groups loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognised government, the military factions allied with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and southern separatists factions.
The 86-page report paints a dark picture of rampant torture across the Arabian Peninsula country of 30 million. It documents electrocutions of prisoners by jailers, the hanging and beating of inmates, mutilation of genitals, removal of fingernails and punching holes in the feet of victims with electric drills.
Yemen has been torn apart by civil war since the Houthis swept control of the capital Sanaa in late 2014, ousting the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. Fearing the encroachment of Iranian influence in the region, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies launched a bombing campaign to reinstate Mr Hadi.
The country was nominally divided between the Houthi-held north and the government-held south until it splintered into multiple mini-wars as alliances broke down.
Mwatana said those fractures sparked an additional surge in violence against detainees including a spike in enforced disappearances.
Based on over 2500 interviews with former detainees, their relatives, witnesses, activists and lawyers, the report released on Tuesday documented more than 1605 cases of arbitrary detention, 770 cases of enforced disappearance, and 344 cases of torture since 2016.
Mwatana was able to confirm 66 deaths within detention, many of them due to torture. They fear the true numbers are much higher.
“Since the conflict has dragged on we have seen a surge in arbitrary detentions and abuse as wars have erupted between the allies of the different warring parties,” Ali Jameel a Mwatana researcher told The Independent.
“All parties of the conflict are involved and treating people in a horrific way. With the arrival of Covid-19 we are particularly concerned. If the virus reaches these detention centres, God help them,” he added.
Yemen’s ruinous five-year civil war has sparked the world’s worth humanitarian crisis in terms of numbers. According to the United Nations, 80 per cent of the population relies on aid to survive.
Millions of civilians have also been pushed to the brink of famine. The UN’s agency for children (UNICEF) warned this week that the number of malnourished children could reach 2.4 million by the end of the year.
With just half the country’s healthcare facilities functioning, it has left the population particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.
While the humanitarian fall out from the conflict has been well documented the abuse of detainees in makeshift jails and prisons has not.
For the first time, this report takes a deep dive into unofficial detention centres across nine different governorates.
The report found the Houthis were responsible for the largest number of arbitrary or abusive detentions (904 of the 1605 in total), as well as cases of torture (138 cases) and deaths in detention (27).
The next largest was the UAE forces and affiliated armed groups like the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which it says bears responsibility for 419 cases of arbitrary or abusive detentions, 327 of enforced disappearance, 141 of torture, and 25 deaths in detention.
The Yemeni government, meanwhile, was responsible for 282 arbitrary or abusive detentions, 90 cases of enforced disappearances, 65 cases of torture and 14 deaths in detention.
However, the researchers said some of the most violent episodes took place in a prison run by the UAE-backed STC, which was allied to Yemen’s government against the Houthis until it launched a bid for southern independence in 2018. It is now a faction on its own.
Mwatana noted 29 cases of torture and at least four deaths in detention at the STC’s “October 7 prison” which is located in the southern province of Abyan, where fighting between government and STC forces is ongoing.
One of the detainees who died was Mohamed, 32. He was stopped at an STC security checkpoint in Abyan in June 2018. His mutilated corpse was dumped a month later in a nearby hospital. His family showed Mwatana a photo of the body. The group said it was soaked in blood, his eyes had been smashed and his teeth broken. He had gunshot wounds to his body including his genitals and had clearly been bound with Iron chains and electrocuted.
Abuses were also recorded at Al-Rayyan, in the south-eastern province of Hadhramaut, that is run by Gulf coalition forces and STC troops.
Sadek, 30, was arrested by forces affiliated with the STC in 2016 and held for a year in Rayyan prison, where he was kept for a brief period in solitary confinement in a one-metre square jail cell. There his relatives told Mwatana his genitals were mutilated and he was threatened with rape.
“I barely recognised this young man with such a frail body,” one relative told the group, adding that Sadek remains behind bars.
Horrific abuses were also recorded within Houthi detention centres in the central governorate of Taiz. There inmates told the rights group they were tortured with electricity, beaten with wires and had their fingernails removed.
One former detainee named as Amro, 39 described the “pressure cooker “ room, a sealed basement cell which is just 3 metres by 2 metres wide and houses up to 12 people at the same time without a toilet.
He was held there for 27 days.
“The cell did not even have a nail hole for air and light to pass through. I did not know when the sun would rise or when it would set. “[there] darkness prevails and a day seems as if it is a year,” he said.
Mwatana has urged all parties to immediately stop the violations and abuses and take a “serious step towards accountability”.
“There must be trials for those with criminal allegations against them,” said Mwatana’s Jameel.
“We must see members of security forces who have credible allegations of serious humanitarian law violations suspended.”