Fighters issuing death threats against doctors for treating wounded Houthis
Armed men swarming corridors demanding their own wounded are treated immediately
‘There are dozens of armed men in the hospital. Am I running a hospital or a battalion?’ - Director of al-Thawra hospital
Anti-Houthi forces in Yemen’s southern city of Ta’iz are leading a campaign of harassment and intimidation against hospital staff and endangering civilians by stationing fighters and military positions near medical facilities, said Amnesty International today.
During a visit to Ta’iz earlier this month, Amnesty’s researchers interviewed 15 doctors and other hospital staff who described how members of anti-Houthi armed forces had regularly harassed, detained or even threatened to kill them over the past six months. In at least three cases hospitals were shut down because of threats against staff.
In the latest incident, on Monday, a group of anti-Houthi forces - also known as Popular Resistance Forces, allied with Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition - raided and shut down al-Thawra hospital, the biggest public hospital in Ta’iz, apparently in retaliation for staff providing emergency medical treatment to three injured Houthi fighters.
According to eyewitnesses, three armed men stormed an office at the hospital and threatened to kill medical staff if it was not shut down immediately. They also tried to drag the two surviving Houthi fighters out of intensive care and recovery units, but were prevented by medical staff. The hospital is now only partially functioning, providing only limited emergency services and dialysis, despite a renewal in heavy fighting since the first week of November. Staff at al-Thawra hospital also said that anti-Houthi forces diverted electricity for their own personal use, disrupting power to crucial services.
In other instances fighters have demanded medicines and supplies, and confiscated equipment from hospitals. One administrative staff member described the anti-Houthi forces as “the de facto authority”, saying they often came to the hospital asking for fighters with war wounds to be treated. Doctors told Amnesty that if anti-Houthi fighters were turned away due to lack of capacity at the hospital in some cases they turned violent. In some cases, medical staff said that doctors were forced to carry out their work at gunpoint. According to one doctor from al-Jamhouri hospital who spoke to Amnesty, one man opened fire inside the hospital compound after being told his son, an anti-Houthi fighter with a minor leg injury, did not require emergency care and could be treated by a nurse. His violent outburst injured hospital staff and killed a patient. Hospital staff also said armed men refused to leave weapons outside and routinely caused trouble inside, verbally abusing doctors and having physical fights with medical staff.
“Hundreds of times [anti-Houthi fighters] threatened us and interfered with the hospital’s administration and our decision-making. When we stand up to them, they threaten us with being killed,” said an administrative worker who was detained by gunmen along with another doctor after trying to stop them from interfering in hospital affairs.
Under international humanitarian law, medical facilities enjoy special protection from attacks and should not be used for military purposes or targeted by parties to the conflict. They remain protected unless they are used outside their humanitarian function to commit harmful acts to enemy. Treating wounded soldiers or fighters is part of the humanitarian function of a hospital and medical facilities may never be attacked for doing so.
Amnesty is calling on the Yemeni authorities to enhance security at medical facilities and protect staff and patients from attack.
Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said:
“There is compelling evidence to suggest that anti-Houthi forces have waged a campaign of fear and intimidation against medical professionals in Ta’iz.
“There can be no excuse for harassing medical staff or preventing doctors from carrying out their life-saving work. Attacks targeting health professionals or medical facilities are prohibited by international humanitarian law and can constitute war crimes.
“It is a fundamental rule of international humanitarian law that the wounded - whether civilians or fighters - must be collected and cared for. It is outrageous and unacceptable that anti-Houthi forces are retaliating against medical staff for performing their duties.
“By positioning fighters and military vehicles in and around medical facilities in Ta’iz, anti-Huthi forces are endangering civilians and hospital staff, flouting a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law.”
Setting up military positions near hospitals
Staff at al-Thawra hospital told Amnesty that fighters have set up defensive positions, including by parking tanks around the hospital compound, ignoring pleas by staff and local authorities not to do so. This has put hospital buildings, staff and patients at serious risk amid retaliatory fire from Houthi forces.
Al-Thawra’s director said the hospital guards were unable to stand up to members of the armed forces: “There are dozens of armed men in the hospital. Am I running a hospital or a battalion? … The armed men will create any problem with you outside the hospital if you refuse them.”
One doctor who used to live and work in the hospital until July said fighters would launch attacks from next to the hospital at twice a week on average. This in turn would result in fierce retaliatory attacks by Houthi forces on and around the hospital. On 28 September, a mortar fired by Houthi forces stuck the hospital, damaging its solar panels, water tanks and pipes, which led to it temporarily suspending surgical operations.
UK arms still going to Saudi Arabia-led coalition
Amnesty has repeatedly called for a comprehensive arms embargo on arms transfers that could be used by any of the warring parties in Yemen. Anti-Houthi forces are backed by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, which has been heavily armed by the UK and USA.
Amnesty has documented unlawful attacks, including war crimes, by all parties to the conflict in Yemen.