Security and human rights concerns in Yemen

International attention has focused on security issues in Yemen since the apparent attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on 25 December 2009 to blow up a US airliner. The 23-year-old Nigerian allegedly received jihadist training in Yemen. By contrast, scant attention has been paid to the Yemeni government’s human rights record. Below is a short summary of Amnesty International’s media briefing assessing the security and human rights issues in Yemen. A full version of the media briefing can be read here. Jihadist attacks According to 26 September, a pro-government daily newspaper, in December 2009, “al-Qa’ida elements” had carried out 65 “terrorist operations” in Yemen since 1998. While the government tends to blame all jihadist violence on al-Qa’ida, militants have also claimed to belong to other jihadist groups such as Yemeni Islamic Jihad and the Brigades of the Soldiers of Yemen, or have been accused of belonging to such groups when brought to trial. It is unclear to what extent they are or are not affiliated with al-Qa’ida. Since 2000, armed attacks by jihadist groups, whether al-Qa’ida or not, have targeted government officials, foreign embassies and tourists, killing more than 25 civilians in suicide bombings and other attacks. Unlawful killings of suspected militants and bystanders In response to these attacks, the government has killed scores of people it accuses of being al-Qa’ida members; such attacks appear to have intensified in the last year, particularly since mid-December 2009. Some of the deaths have been reported as occurring during exchanges of fire between fugitive militants and security forces trying to apprehend them. Reports about other deaths, however, suggest that the security forces made no attempt to detain the militants and that the killings may have amounted to extrajudicial executions. There have been reports that US forces were involved in recent attacks against al-Qai’da in Yemen, or provided support to such attacks by Yemeni forces. Amnesty International has not been able to verify such reports. Previously the USA has stated in general that it “believes that it is in a continuing state of international armed conflict with Al Qaida”. Such a position, implying a global battlefield and that the USA can kill suspects anywhere in the world, is clearly inconsistent with international law. Detentions and trials of suspected militants Hundreds, possibly thousands have been detained on suspicion of jihadist militancy over the last decade. Most appear to have been arrested arbitrarily. Many have been held without charge or trial for months or years, generally denied access to lawyers and any means to challenge the legality of their detention. Often they are also deprived of contact with their families for weeks or months after arrest. Many are held in detention centres operated outside the law by Yemen’s domestic intelligence agency, Political Security and the recently created security force, National Security. Torture and other ill-treatment are reported to be common practice in these centres. Security forces have increasingly arrested a wide range of individuals. They include people who may have raised the suspicions of the authorities for no other reason than, for instance, having a connection with Afghanistan. Among those detained by Political Security for varying periods of time are returnees from US custody in Guantánamo Bay, where over 90 Yemenis continue to be held. Foreign detainees who are suspected of jihadist links tend to be forcibly returned to their countries of origin with no regard for the risks they may face on their return. Killings and restrictions on humanitarian access in the Sa’da conflict The conflict in the northern region of Sa’da began in 2004. Tensions sparked when followers of Hussain Badr al-Din al-Huthi, a cleric and former Member of Parliament who founded a movement to revive Zaidism, a branch of Shi’a Islam, organized protests against the USA and Israel before, during and after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The protests focused primarily on the Yemeni government’s relations with the USA and were followed by arrests, detentions and armed clashes between the security forces and the followers of al-Huthi, who was killed in September 2004. An estimated 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. Many now live in camps run by international humanitarian agencies. An unknown number of civilians – possibly several hundred or more – have been killed since 2004. All parties to the conflict are alleged to have committed serious human rights abuses. The government has accused the Huthi rebels of killing civilians and captured soldiers. The rebels have alleged that Yemeni government forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks in which scores of civilians have died. Yemeni government restrictions on journalists and independent observers mean that reliable information is often impossible to obtain. Detentions and trials related to the Sa’da conflict Several hundred people are reported to be held in connection with the Sa’da conflict. There are concerns that some have been subjected to enforced disappearance, since the authorities have concealed where they are being detained and under what conditions. Many are believed to be held without charge or trial in detention centres, where many have allegedly been tortured or otherwise ill-treated under interrogation during prolonged incommunicado detention. Since 2006, at least 140 detainees have been tried before the Specialized Criminal Court. Dozens have been sentenced to death following proceedings which failed to meet international fair trial standards. Critics of government policies in Sa’da have been targeted by the authorities and, when detained, have been considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience. Excessive use of force and violations of freedom of assembly in the south There has been growing unrest in the south since August 2007, when ex-soldiers of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, who were dismissed from employment after the 1994 civil war, began protesting against the lower level of pensions they say they received in comparison with soldiers of the former Yemen Arab Republic in the north. The authorities reacted by arresting scores of the protesters and detaining them for short periods before releasing them without trial. The authorities’ repressive approach added to the protesters’ sense of grievance and the protests mushroomed as other sectors of southern society joined in to vent their frustration over harsh economic conditions and the lack of job opportunities which they attributed, at least in part, to government discrimination. A loose coalition of individuals, political groups and other organizations known as the Southern Movement has called for the south of the country to secede from the unified Republic of Yemen. The Yemeni authorities have accused the Southern Movement of containing an armed element, while it has repeatedly stressed the peaceful nature of its aims. Most protests have been peaceful. Despite this, in a high number of instances the security forces have fired live ammunition, without warning or without first using non-lethal methods. As a result, dozens of protesters are reported to have been unlawfully killed and many others wounded at the hands of the security forces. Detentions, trials, torture and attacks on the media Since the protests began the security forces have arrested and detained, in many cases arbitrarily, thousands of demonstrators and bystanders. Most have been arrested and quickly released in an apparent attempt to stop them from taking part in protests or to punish them for doing so. Many others have been held in prolonged detention without charge or trial and unlawfully denied access to lawyers and the means to challenge the legality of their detention. Some detainees allege that they have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention. Critics of government policies towards protests in the south have also been targeted and in some cases charged with the vaguely worded charge of “undermining national unity”. The independent media has also come under sustained attack, particularly after the coverage by a number of newspapers of protests in the south of the country in the lead-up to 27 April 2009, the 15th anniversary of the start of the civil war of 1994. In May 2009, a new court was created to try cases relating to the media. Human rights framework In recent years, the Yemeni authorities have undertaken a number of institutional changes and pursued practices which have seriously eroded the human rights framework. In 2002 the government created a new security force, National Security, which, like Political Security, reports directly to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and is not subjected by law to judicial oversight, effectively giving it licence to operate outside the framework of the law. A law on money laundering and financing of terrorism that was introduced in January 2010 requires lawyers to disclose information about their clients in breach of the principle of lawyer-client confidentiality. The draft Counter Terrorism Law is dangerous in its definition of “terrorist action”, which is so vague and sweeping that it risks being used to penalize legitimate peaceful dissent as well as acts of political violence. It also expands the number of crimes punishable by death.