Timeline: UAE’s role in southern Yemen’s secret prisons

25 March 2015

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen begins, with an aerial campaign and naval blockade targeting the Huthis and allied forces. 

July 2015

The “liberation” of the southern city of Aden by Yemeni and coalition forces is announced on 17 July, shortly after the arrival of United Arab Emirates (UAE) ground troops. Analysis of satellite imagery from the time shows the installation of the perimeter for the UAE base in Aden’s Bureiqa district, and later imagery shows the construction and expansion of a detention centre there. 

Detention area, Aden’s Bureiqa district, Yemen. Image: © 2017, DigitalGlobe, Inc. Source: © 2017 Google

March 2016

UAE-backed Security Belt Forces are formed (now totalling up to 15,000 troops active in several southern governorates, including Aden, Lahj, and Abyan). 

April 2016

Construction starts on a detention facility in the UAE/coalition base in Aden’s Bureiqa district, according to satellite imagery analysis. Imagery shows the detention area expanding throughout 2016 and early 2017, aligning with the waves of arrests documented by Amnesty International and others.

The satellite image from 12 April 2016 shows that, in Aden’s Bureiqa district, construction had started within the large perimeter of the base and that the perimeter of the detention centre becomes apparent. Image: © 2017, DigitalGlobe, Inc. Source: © 2017 Google

April 2016

UAE ground forces, backed by air support, wage a successful operation to retake al-Mukalla, Hadramawt from al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The UAE-trained and funded Hadrami Elite Forces, established earlier that year, play a key role in the battle.

Mid 2016

The UAE establishes, trains and funds the Shabwani Elite Forces. 

June 2017

Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press reveal a network of at least 18 secret prisons across southern Yemen run by the UAE and local forces it backs. 

July 2017

On 12 July, Yemeni security forces violently disperse a demonstration by female relatives of detainees outside a UAE base in Aden. Mothers, sisters and wives of detainees have held regular protests in Aden and al-Mukalla since 2016.

Families protest unlawful detentions outside the presidential palace complex, June 2018, Aden Families protest unlawful detentions outside the presidential palace complex, June 2018, Aden
Families protest unlawful detentions outside the presidential palace complex, June 2018, Aden. © Private

August 2017

Yemen’s Prosecutor General reopens prosecution offices in Aden and other southern governorates that had been closed amid the conflict.

October 2017

Yemeni prosecutors gain access to at least two UAE-supervised detention facilities in Aden. They begin interrogating hundreds of detainees and issuing release orders. 

November 2017

Hundreds of detainees who had been forcibly disappeared for months are moved from unofficial detention facilities to newly constructed Bir Ahmed II in Aden and the Central Prison in al-Mukalla, Hadramawt.

December 2017

Families granted access to visit detainees in Bir Ahmed II.  

February 2018

The International Committee of the Red Cross visits Bir Ahmed II – the first reported access by an international entity to a UAE-supervised detention facility in southern Yemen. 

10 March 2018

UAE troops raid Bir Ahmed II, forcing detainees to strip naked and undergo cavity searches. Detainees subsequently go on hunger strike and demand their captors implement the release orders issued by Yemeni prosecutors.  

Satellite image from 18 June 2018 shows the site in Aden of the defunct Bir Ahmed I prison and the newer Bir Ahmed II, which became an official detention facility in November 2017. Image: © 2018, DigitalGlobe, Inc.

June/July 2018

Scores of detainees are released from formal and informal detention facilities run by UAE-backed local forces and the UAE military.


Read Amnesty International's new report, “God only knows if he’s alive” .