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Yemen: New report documents 'human rights catastrophe' in Abyan region

  • Armed group carried out floggings, amputations and summary public executions
  • One body was crucified for several days
  • Hand of an amputated man was hung in town square as warning to others

The people of Yemen’s southern Abyan region have suffered a “human rights catastrophe” during conflict between an al-Qa’ida-affiliated armed group and the reckless counter-insurgency operations of the Yemeni government, said Amnesty International today (4 December), as it released a new report on the country.

Amnesty’s 55-page report, Conflict in Yemen: Abyan’s Darkest Hour (PDF) documents violations of the rules of war during the armed conflict between government forces and Ansar al-Shari’a (Partisans of al-Shari’a), an Islamist armed group affiliated to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. 

It details horrific human rights abuses committed in the governorate of Abyan and other areas in the south of Yemen during the rule of the Islamist group between February 2011 and June 2012, including summary public killings, crucifixion, amputation and flogging.

In addition, the report shows that the Yemeni government response to Ansar al-Shari’a included indiscriminate attacks resulting in the unnecessary loss of civilian life, obstructing medical care, and subjecting suspected fighters to enforced disappearance. There are also reports that some of the air strikes documented in this report may have been carried out by US drones, which appear to have been active during the conflict.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:

“Abyan experienced a human rights catastrophe as Ansar al-Shari’a and government forces vied for control of the region during 2011 and the first half of 2012.

“The Yemeni authorities must ensure that a commission of inquiry announced in September covers the truly shocking abuses committed.

“The tragedy of Abyan will haunt Yemen for decades to come unless those responsible are held to account and victims and their families receive reparations.”

Ansar al-Shari’a abuses
After it took control of most of Abyan during 2011-12, Ansar al-Shari’a was responsible for widespread human rights abuses, including via its newly-established “religious courts”. These frequently imposed cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments on alleged criminals, suspected spies, those accused of “sorcery”, and people who transgressed cultural norms. Punishments included summary killings - including at least one post-execution crucifixion - amputations and floggings.

In one case, 28-year-old Saleh Ahmed Saleh al-Jamli was found guilty by a religious court in the town of Ja’ar of planting electronic devices in two vehicles carrying Ansar al-Shari’a commanders. The ruling obtained by Amnesty said the devices had enabled US drones to kill commanders in Zinjibar and claimed Saleh al-Jamli “confessed” to a judicial committee. The court ruled that Saleh al-Jamli should be killed, and his remains crucified.

Meanwhile, Ansar al-Shari’a has amputated the hand of at least one person suspected of theft - a young man Amnesty met whose left hand had been amputated in a public square in Ja’ar. He was arrested along with two of his friends by members of the armed group and accused of stealing electric wires. The friends were eventually released but the youth, a member of a marginalised community widely referred to as al-akhdam (servants), said that he was tortured for five days without access to a lawyer or his family, and then had his left hand amputated without attending a trial and without prior knowledge of the punishment. Amnesty has been given a 90-second video appearing to show the amputation being carried out. Residents told Amnesty that the amputated hand was later suspended by a rope in the town’s market for all to see.

Ansar al-Shari’a also sought to tighten its grip on power through threats, intimidation and the enforcement of a highly repressive social and religious code. The rights of Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and girls in particular came under attack and severe dress codes were imposed, as was a strict separation of the sexes and restrictions at work and in schools. A schoolteacher told Amnesty that Ansar al-Shari’a had one female representative for each school to supervise the implementation of the armed group’s instructions.

Yemeni government abuses
After Ansar al-Shari’a took over Abyan and extended its reach to other areas in the south, the Yemeni military launched several attacks to regain control, culminating in a major offensive on 12 May 2012 using air power and artillery. By the end of June, government forces had succeeded in driving the group out of Abyan and surrounding areas.

In the process, Yemeni government forces used inappropriate battlefield weapons such as artillery in civilian residential areas. In other attacks government forces appeared to fail to take the necessary precautions to spare civilians. Scores of civilians, including Children's rights, were killed and many more injured as a result of air strikes and artillery and mortar attacks by government forces. Ansar al-Shari’a meanwhile used residential areas as bases, particularly in Ja’ar, recklessly exposing civilian residents to harm.

The toxic mix of fighting and human rights abuses meant an estimated 250,000 people from Yemen’s southern governorates, particularly Abyan, were displaced. While Ansar al-Shari’a were driven out of the cities and towns they controlled in June, there remains a danger the group will re-emerge and that the armed conflict will resume.

About this report
This report is based on the findings of an Amnesty fact-finding mission to Yemen in June-July 2012. Amnesty interviewed residents, activists, journalists, witnesses, victims and relatives of victims from Abyan governorate, mainly in Aden and Ja’ar, and visited areas affected by the conflict, including Ja’ar, Zinjibar and al-Kawd.

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