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UAE forces operating network of secret prisons in Yemen - new report

Scores have been held in ‘parallel security structure’ - where electric-shock torture and sexual violence rife, and detainees ‘disappear’ 

‘We should be using our influence with the Emiratis to ensure their dirty war of torture and disappearances in Yemen is ended immediately’ - Kate Allen

The United Arab Emirates has been carrying out the enforced disappearance and torture of scores of people in southern Yemen, said Amnesty International today.

In a new 34-page report - ‘God only knows if he’s alive’ - Amnesty shows how scores of men have been “disappeared” after being arbitrarily arrested and detained by Emirati and Yemeni forces operating outside the command of their own government. Many have been tortured (see below), with some thought to have died in custody. 

Since entering the Yemeni conflict in March 2015, the UAE has created, trained, equipped and financed various local security forces known as the “Security Belt” and the “Elite Forces”. The UAE has also built alliances with Yemeni security officials, bypassing their leadership in the Yemeni government.

Amnesty investigated the cases of 51 men detained by these forces - between March 2016 and May this year - in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Hadramawt, and Shabwa governorates. Most of the cases involved enforced disappearance, and 19 of these men remain missing. Amnesty interviewed 75 people, including former detainees, relatives of those still missing, activists, and government officials. 

The UAE is a key member of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen, active since March 2015.  Its involvement with the Security Belt and Elite Forces has the ostensible aim of combating “terrorism”, including by rounding up members of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State armed group. However, critics say many arrests are based on unfounded suspicions and personal vendettas. Critics of the coalition and the practices of UAE-backed security forces have themselves been among those rounded up, including community figures, activists and journalists, as well as sympathisers and members of the al-Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch.

Relatives of suspected AQAP and ISIS members, as well as men who initially helped the coalition fight the Huthis but are now seen as a threat, have also been targeted.

Witnesses have described how detainees have been dragged from workplaces or the street, in some cases being beaten to the point of losing consciousness. Others were seized in terrifying late-night raids on their homes by balaclava-clad, gun-toting security forces referred to as “the masked ones”.

Meanwhile, the authorities have intimidated and even attacked female relatives of detainees and the disappeared who’ve held numerous protests in Aden and al-Mukalla during the past two years.

The UAE has repeatedly denied it is involved in unlawful detention practices in Yemen, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile the Yemeni government has stated to a UN panel of experts that it does not have control over the security forces trained and backed by the UAE. 

Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International, said:

“The UAE, operating in shadowy conditions in southern Yemen, appears to have created a parallel security structure outside the law.

“The families of these detainees find themselves in an endless nightmare where their loved ones have been forcibly disappeared by UAE-backed forces. When they demand to know where their loved ones are held, or if they are even still alive, their requests are met with silence or intimidation.

“Ultimately these violations, which are taking place in the context of Yemen’s armed conflict, should be investigated as war crimes.

“The UAE’s counter-terrorism partners, including the USA, must also take a stand against allegations of torture, including by investigating the role of US personnel in detention-related abuses in Yemen, and by refusing to use information that was likely obtained through torture or other ill-treatment.”

Electric shocks and sexual violence

Amnesty’s report documents the widespread use of torture in the Yemeni and Emirati facilities. Current and former detainees and families gave horrific accounts of abuse, including beatings, use of electric shocks and sexual violence. One said he saw a fellow detainee being carried away in a body bag after being repeatedly tortured. 

Another former detainee who was held at Waddah Hall, a notorious unofficial detention facility in Aden operated by a local counter-terrorism unit, said:

“I saw things I do not want to see again. In that place, you do not even see the sun. They were making all sorts of accusations. They started beating me … Then one day, they released me at night, they said they had me confused with someone else … ‘It was a mistaken identity, sorry.’ It was as if they had done nothing after all the suffering I endured from electric shocks.”

Another former detainee said UAE soldiers at a coalition base in Aden repeatedly inserted an object into his anus until he bled. He said he was also kept in a hole in the ground with only his head above the surface and left to defecate and urinate on himself in that position. 

Amnesty also documented the case of a man who was arrested at his house by the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces and then dumped next to his family’s house a few hours later, badly injured with visible marks of torture. He died shortly after being taken to hospital.

Mothers, wives and sisters of the disappeared

Mothers, wives and sisters of those forcibly disappeared have been holding regular protests for nearly two years, going from government and prosecution offices, security departments, prisons, coalition bases, and various entities handling human rights complaints. The sister of a 44-year-old man who was arrested in Aden in late 2016, told Amnesty: 

“We have no idea where he is, God only knows if he’s alive. Our father died of a broken heart a month ago. He died not knowing where his son is. We just want to know our brother’s fate. We just want to hear his voice and know where he is. If he’s done something, aren’t there courts to try them? At least put them on trial, let us visit them. What is the point of courts? Why disappear them like this?”

Some families said they were approached by individuals who told them their relatives had died in custody, only for this to be denied when they checked with the leadership of the UAE-backed Yemeni forces.

“If they would just confirm to us that my brother is alive, if they would just let us see him, that’s all we want. But we can’t get anyone to give us any confirmation. My mother dies a hundred times every day. They don’t know what that is like,” said the sister of a detainee who was forcibly disappeared after his arrest in September 2016 and who is widely rumoured to be among those who died in custody.

Call on UK Government 

Along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates is a key member of the multi-country military coalition which, since March 2015, has been active in the Yemen conflict, including with a bombing campaign which has claimed the lives of thousands of Yemeni civilians. Amnesty is calling on the UK to suspend the supply of weapons and related military equipment to the UAE and other parties to the conflict. The UK should also press the UAE to properly investigate the findings of Amnesty’s report. It should also ensure that UK intelligence and security agencies do not receive or make use of information likely to have been obtained through the use of torture or other ill-treatment by Emirati forces - or their allies - in Yemen.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said: 


“Given the UK’s extensive political, business and security links with the UAE, we should be using our influence with the Emiratis to ensure their dirty war of torture and disappearances in Yemen is ended immediately. 


“The UK is providing aid and keeping an international focus on Yemen, but we need to become a truly honest broker.


“With a clear and demonstrable risk of their misuse, we need to stop selling weapons to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition - including the UAE - and speak out about the coalition’s abuses.” 


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