Yemen abandons human rights in the name of countering terrorism

The Yemeni authorities must stop sacrificing human rights in the name of security as they confront threats from al-Qa’ida, Zaidi Shi’a rebels in the north, and address growing demands for secession in the south, Amnesty International said today in a new report.

Yemen: Cracking Down Under Pressure documents a catalogue of human rights violations including unlawful killings of those accused of links to al-Qa’ida and Southern Movement activists, and arbitrary arrests, torture and unfair trials.

Yemenis accused of supporting the Huthis who are armed Zaidi Shi’a rebels in the northern Sa’dah region, or the Southern Movement, have also been targeted for arbitrary detention, unfair trials in specialized courts and beatings, together with journalists, dissenters, human rights defenders, and critics of the government.

Some have been subjected to enforced disappearance for weeks or months by largely unaccountable security agencies that report directly to Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“An extremely worrying trend has developed where the Yemeni authorities, under pressure from the USA and others to fight al-Qa’ida, and Saudi Arabia to deal with the Huthis, have been citing national security as a pretext to deal with opposition and stifle all criticism.” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“All measures taken in the name of countering terrorism or other security challenges in Yemen must have at its heart the protection of human rights.”

The number of death sentences passed in trials of people accused of having links to al-Qa’ida, or to the Huthi armed group has noticeably increased. In 2009, at least 34 people accused of links to Huthi armed groups were sentenced to death.

The security forces have killed at least 113 people since 2009 in operations the government says target “terrorists”. Attacks have become more frequent since December 2009 with security forces in some cases making no attempt to detain suspects before killing them.

At least 41 people were killed, 21 of them children and 14 of them women, on 17 December 2009 when their settlement in al-Ma’jalah area in the southern district of Abyan was hit by missiles.

“The Yemeni authorities have a duty to ensure public safety and to bring to justice those engaged in attacks that deliberately target members of the public, but when doing so they must abide by international law,” said Malcolm Smart. “Enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions are never permissible, and the Yemeni authorities must immediately cease these violations.”

“It is particularly worrying that states such as Saudi Arabia and the USA are directly or indirectly aiding the Yemeni government in a downward spiral away from previously improving human rights record.”

The Southern Movement is a loose coalition of individuals, political groups and other organizations advocating for greater rights for people in the south, with origins tracing back to the 1994 civil war between northern and southern Yemen. Many factions of the Movement now call for the south to secede from the rest of Yemen.

Huthis, followers of Hussain Badr al-Din al-Huthi in the region of Sa’dah, have been fighting the government since 2004 in what initially began as a protest at the US led invasion of Iraq, but developed into armed conflict particularly after the killing of their leader by the government.

The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) was created in the name of ‘countering terrorism’ in 1999, its remit expanded in 2004, and three additional SCCs were then established in 2009. The SCC has been used to convict people such as journalists covering the conflict in Sa’dah, or grievances expressed by the Southern Movement. 

Hundreds have been tried by the SCC since its establishment.

This court is now being used by the Yemeni authorities against a wide range of people whose activities or disclosures are considered hostile or harmful to the government.

Qassem Askar Jubran, former diplomat, and Fadi Ba’oom, political activist, were arrested in April 2009, charged with “harming the independence of the Republic” and “the unity of Yemen” and for organizing protests in aid of the Southern Movement. Both were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in March 2010, and have since been released.

“All they have against him is involvement in the Southern Movement, writing in al-Ayyam newspaper, attending gatherings,” Salah Askar Jubran, Qassem’s brother told Amnesty International in March.

The creation of the Specialized Press and Publications Court (SPPC) in May 2009 was widely seen as a government attempt to suppress non-violent opposition and the expression of critical views in the media.

Anissa Uthman, a journalist working for al-Wassat newspaper, is among several journalists and editors tried by the SPPC. In her absence she was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in January 2010 on charges of defaming President Saleh. According to reports, she was prosecuted because of articles she wrote criticizing the arrest and imprisonment of human rights activists.