WASHINGTON: Human rights and the rule of law in Yemen, which had been making good progress in both areas, have been badly set back by the US “war on terror,” according to a new report released by Amnesty International.
Wednesday’s 27-page report, Yemen: The Rule of Law Sidelined in the Name of Security, details how Yemeni authorities rounded up scores of people after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and detained them for many months without charges or trial in prisons where many suffered torture and other abuse.
Many of the actions, including the government’s apparent acquiescence in the killing of six suspected Al-Qaeda members in November 2002 by a CIA-controlled drone aircraft, were taken in the context of enhanced security cooperation between the US and Yemen, according to the report which also noted that the government resorted to mass deportations of foreign nationals detained in Yemen without any due process.
“Yemeni authorities are deliberately pitting national security against human rights as they pursue a policy of torture, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions and forced deportations of foreign nationals,” said William Schulz, executive director of the US section of Amnesty (AIUSA). “Some of these tactics are sustained by close collusion with the US government, both in the training of Yemeni security forces and on issues of detention,” he added.
The report said that Amnesty had been permitted to visit Yemen twice during 2002 when it held talks with the government about the human rights situation. While recognizing that they had violated many of the international human rights conventions which Yemen had signed in recent years, the authorities replied that they had to “fight terrorism” in order to avert the risks of military action against Yemen by the US.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, had made significant progress in its human rights performance since the late 1990s. In addition to adopting a liberal constitution that legalized opposition parties, the country held elections in 1999 which were widely praised as among the fairest and most open in the region.
Many of the advances were attributable in major part to the work of a vibrant civil society and a lively press. The government, which also had developed substantive dialogue with international human rights groups, including Amnesty, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, created a Minister of State for Human Rights in 2001 as one of a series of reforms recommended by local and international groups.
“Regrettably, this progress is today threatened by the changes in regional and world politics brought about by the Sept. 11 attacks on the US,” according to the report which called the government’s post-Sept. 11 security policies “a serious setback” and a “significant regression” in its human rights policy.
State authorities carried out mass arrests after Sept. 11, targeting Yemenis and foreign nationals, including pregnant and elderly women and children as young as 12 years old. While many of those arrested were individuals with connections to Afghanistan, individuals who had no such connection were also picked up, including four British nationals, all younger than 18 years old and held for one month without charges before being deported to Britain.
In some cases, relatives of someone sought by the security forces have been held in an attempt to force the person to turn himself in. In other cases, relatives who inquired about a detained family member were themselves arrested. In many cases, family members were forced to wait weeks or even months before learning whether their relatives had indeed been detained.
Amnesty said it had received numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment meted out to those who have been detained during this period. In one case, a British national and Director the Center for Red Sea Studies at Exeter University, Abdelsalam Nour al-Din, was beaten with a stick on his back, punched in the chest, and threatened with execution and “disappearance,” while blindfolded. He was also held in solitary confinement.
While he was released after only a few days after government officials with whom he had been meeting intervened with the security forces, many more detainees were held for weeks and even months without charges in violation of constitutional guarantees that require judicial or prosecutorial review of all cases within 24 of hours of any detention.
Suspects apprehended in 2001 in connection with the October 2000 attack by Al-Qaeda operatives on the USS Cole, and later interrogated by FBI agents, have been in detention for more than two years without being formally charged or given access to a lawyer, according to the report which quoted officials as telling Amnesty that US officials have blocked efforts by the government to bring them to trial.
The report noted that Yemen has for many years provided haven for thousands of refugees fleeing persecution in other countries, particularly those in the Horn of Africa. While some of them have been forcibly deported in the past, the government has resorted to mass deportations of foreign nationals since Sept. 11.
Most were rounded up and held incommunicado for weeks or months before their deportation. In a number of cases, these foreign nationals held valid residence permits but were deported anyway due to the government’s suspicion that they were associated with Islamist groups or religious schools, Amnesty said. Most of the deportees were from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Somalia, the US, Britain, and France, although repeated requests by Amnesty for a list have been rejected by the government.
Amnesty said it remained concerned about the fate of the deportees, particularly those repatriated to Saudi Arabia and other countries known to use torture and hold summary trials followed by executions.
The crackdown that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as concern about the possibility of a US attack, “generated a climate of fear” that effectively silenced many civil society groups and journalists, some of whom were also detained and harassed, according to the report. By late 2002, however, non-governmental groups and some lawmakers began questioning the detentions resulting in the establishment by Parliament of a commission to investigate the situation of detainees.
Amnesty charged that the US had contributed to the deteriorating human rights situation in Yemen in several ways, notably in its own detention of scores of Yemeni nationals as “enemy combatants” at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under conditions that violate the Geneva Conventions and international human rights and humanitarian law, by training Yemeni security forces after Sept. 11, and by its own extra-judicial killing of the six Al-Qaeda suspects on Yemeni territory.
“Amnesty International believes that at times of heightened concern about security, human rights need more protection, not less,” Schulz said. “It is time the US uses its leverage to ensure that justice and the rule of law are at the forefront of security cooperation with Yemen.”