Look away now – Yemen’s Ansar al-Shari’a are in town

It could be I’m getting squeamish in my old age. I don't know. But I couldn't look at even a few seconds of a video showing men in medical outfits using a scalpel to cut off the hand of an alleged thief in Yemen.

This happened last year in a public square called Nadi Khanfar in the town of Ja’ar in Yemen’s southern region of Abyan. The victim was accused of stealing electric wire. His accusers were men from Ansar al-Shari’a, a hardline group affiliated to al-Qa’ida who'd taken over the town and others in the area a few months earlier. Watch the video above, but be warned even the few edited seconds of the amputation are horrible to see.

And that, of course, is supposed to be the “point”. With chants of “God is great” as the hand-severing takes place - right out in the open, in a town square - Ansar al-Shari’a are supposedly demonstrating justice, acting it out, putting it into action. (I’m reminded of our own bloody history of public punishments, including branding, the stocks and gibbets swinging from places like Gibbet Hill on the outskirts of 18th-century Coventry).

A new report from Amnesty has a whole chapter on Ansar al-Shari’a’s punishments. There are floggings, numerous public executions, and several amputations (see the Daily Mail's er, unflinching coverage here). Confessions are recorded on video and then broadcast. In one case, that of a 28-year-old man called Saleh al-Jamli, his execution for an alleged plot against Ansar military commanders saw his body being crucified - ie put on a crucifix for public display for several days. Other victims of Ansar’s particular brand of justice have included a woman beheaded in the town of Rada’ for “sorcery”. Her decapitated head was brandished to onlookers as a warning to others. (Though as a warning about what? About the risks of indulging in “witchcraft”?)

As I say, there’s quite a lot more of this in the Amnesty report. It describes a Taleban-type scenario. An armed group taking over a swathe of a country with a weak central government distracted by other conflicts and political in-fighting. Then the immediate establishment of a would-be Islamic state (here, for instance, the town of Ja’ar was renamed the Emirate of Waqar by Ansar’s year-zero zealots).

Except ... look behind Ansar al-Shari’a’s tough public facade on justice and you see it’s all a sham. It’s all for show. Public executions follow “trials” where lawyers aren’t even permitted. There are plenty of “confession” videos but it’s likely that confessions were coerced not volunteered. The man whose hand is cut off for wire-stealing says: “They accused me of stealing ... They detained me in a room for five days ... They kept beating me hard ... and tortured me with electric shocks ... they would pour some water on my chest and then place a wire on it and I would feel as if I had been thrown hard".

Tortured with a wire for ... supposedly stealing wire. Meanwhile, the “sorcerer” they beheaded was, according to locals, just a well-known eccentric, a woman who dressed in men’s clothes and chewed qat with the town’s men. It seems this kind on non-conformity couldn’t be tolerated. And then there’s the amputation case again. The victim’s father actually managed to confront some of the Ansar men. This is what he says happened:

“I asked them: ‘Why did you amputate his hand?’ One of them said: ‘This is Allah’s Shari’a and we implemented it.’ I asked them how they knew that he had stolen ... Did they have proof? One answered that they didn’t have proof. So I said, ‘Then why did you cut off his hand?’ Another man who was carrying a rifle answered: ‘mazaj’ [we were in the mood]”.

Ansar al Shari’a have now been driven out of Abyan by the Yemeni military (a typically heavy-handed government operation that’s come at a terrible cost to the local civilian population). Ansar’s arrival in the town of Ja’ar back in early 2011 had been alarmingly sudden (“On 28 February 2011, the people of Ja’ar woke up to find a large number of armed men in the streets”, says the Amnesty report). Abyan has lived through a kind of collective nightmare. As Amnesty’s Philip Luther says, “The tragedy of Abyan will haunt Yemen for decades to come unless those responsible are held to account”. Or will the men from Ansar al Shari’a be back with their scalpels and crucifixes …?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.

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