By Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch
Snatching and hiding political opposition leaders, including from a hospital, is hardly compatible with the government’s claim to protect rights. When the security forces “disappear” opponents of the government they are enforcing not the law, but the political will of the ruler.
At least eight people including a southern opposition leader have been “disappeared” after Yemeni security forces detained them in Aden in February 2011, Human Rights Watch said today.
Security forces detained five prominent members of the Southern Movement on the night of February 26.
Security forces had previously detained a Southern Movement leader, Hassan Baoum, taking him from his hospital bed, along with his son, Fawaz, who brought him to the hospital, on February 20.
Baoum chairs the Supreme Council of the Southern Movement, a main organizer of protests in Aden and surrounding areas since 2007 by southerners seeking independence or increased autonomy for the south, which was a separate republic before it was united with the north in 1990.
Security forces also detained a Southern Movement activist during a protest on February 11. The whereabouts of all eight detainees remain unknown, relatives told Human Rights Watch.
“Snatching and hiding political opposition leaders, including from a hospital, is hardly compatible with the government’s claim to protect rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“When the security forces ‘disappear’ opponents of the government they are enforcing not the law, but the political will of the ruler.”
Central Security forces, a unit whose overall commander is President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, Yahya Saleh, raided the apartment of an engineer, Ali bin Ali Shukri, at about 5:30 p.m. on February 26 and arrested him and four of his guests: doctors Abd al-Khaliq Salah Abd al-Qawi and Yahya Shayif al-Sunaibi; college professor ‘Aidarus Muhsin al-Yahari; and Qasim ‘Askar Jubran, a former ambassador to Mauritania of the previously independent southern Yemeni state.
Shukri’s family told Human Rights Watch that they saw officials from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) outside beginning at about 4:20 p.m.
As soon as the guests arrived, said Shukri’s son, Amr, about 40 uniformed Central Security members arrived in five four-wheel drives and surrounded the house. About five of them broke into the apartment.
He said that the security forces did not identify themselves or give any reason for the arrests, and just took the five men out and put them into the cars. Since then, Amr said, he has not been able to get any information about his father’s whereabouts. He told Human Rights Watch:
“As soon as they took them away, we went to al-Qahira police station and were told that the detainees were taken to the CID. At CID, they confirmed they had them, but said we could not see them until Sunday afternoon.
“We came the next day, it was Sunday, and I brought breakfast for my father, but they said he was no longer there. CID said they were transferred to the General Security Department, I went there, and they said they were at the CID! When I went back to CID, they said they were in al-Mansura jail. In the jail the officials said nobody had been brought to them.”
The families of Abd al-Qawi, al-Sunaibi, and al-Yahari told Human Rights Watch that they had no information about the fates or whereabouts of their relatives. Abd al-Qawi and al-Yahari called their relatives the night of their arrest to say the five detainees were in the CID.
Since then, however, they have not answered their cell phones, and the relatives’ efforts to establish their whereabouts have proven futile.
Abd al-Qawi’s father said that when he visited the CID on February 27, the officials there first said his son had been taken to Aden’s al-Mansura jail, then told the father to inquire with the General Security Department. Officials there denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.
Abd al-Qawi’s brother then went back to the CID and was told that Abd al-Qawi was on a list of detainees to be transferred to Sanaa.
Abd al-Qawi’s brother said that during the afternoon of February 27 he received information from an acquaintance at Aden airport that all five detainees and another three men had been escorted to a military airplane that was destined for Sanaa.
However the families have received no official confirmation of the detainees’ location, the reasons for their arrest, or any charges against them. Shukri’s son told Human Rights Watch he was extremely concerned about the health of his father, who suffers from diabetes and liver disease and needs to take medication regularly.
In the February 20 episode, police took Hassan Baoum and his son Fawaz from the al-Naqib hospital in Aden, where Hassan Baoum was receiving treatment. Another of Baoum’s sons told Human Rights Watch that his 75-year-old father, who suffers from diabetes and a heart condition, had been admitted to the hospital the night before.
He said that other patients in the ward told him that in the morning a group of masked, uniformed security forces entered the ward and took the two men away without explanation, and did not identify themselves or present any papers. The hospital staff and patients confirmed this account to Human Rights Watch.
Baoum’s son said that for the first two days, the family had no information about the men’s whereabouts.
Then, a southern Yemeni whom the family knew and who worked with the local security forces unofficially told him that the detainees had been transferred to the Political Security prison in Sanaa.
The son said he was concerned for his father’s health and well-being, because he served almost a year in that prison and was kept underground, with no contact with the outside world, and no medical assistance.
Baoum’s son said that he could not travel to Sanaa himself, fearing persecution, but tried to get confirmation from the Political Security prison through the International Committee of the Red Cross. The family has received no official confirmation of Hassan and Fawaz Baoum’s fate or whereabouts.
Baoum has been detained three previous times since 2007, most recently from November 2010 to January 2011.
The Southern Movement has been protesting what its supporters view as discrimination by President Saleh’s government against southern Yemenis. Since February, it has joined with protesters in Sanaa, the capital, and other cities north of Aden in calling for Saleh to resign.
The eighth missing detainee is 40-year-old Nasir Ali Muhammad al-Qadhi, a Southern Movement activist.
His brother told Human Rights Watch that on February 11 al-Qadhi was participating in an extremely peaceful protest in Aden when a group of security officers in civilian clothes provoked a fight.
The brother said witnesses to the fight told him that the security forces broke al-Qadhi’s wrist, and that other protesters took him to a hospital.
Witnesses from the hospital told the brother that as soon as doctors started putting a bandage on al-Qadhi’s hand, uniformed policemen arrived in a four-wheel-drive and arrested him. His brother said:
“I went to al-Mansura police station, and the officers there told me that my brother had a big problem, and they would discipline him first but would let me see him tomorrow. When I came the next day they told me they had transferred him to the Political Security offices in al-Mansura.
“I went there and brought some clothes and food for Nasir. They told me to come back tomorrow. When I came they said they had transferred him to Political Security office in Fath, in [Aden’s] Tuwahi district.
“I kept going there, and they kept telling me to come tomorrow, but they took the food that I brought for him. I stopped going there, and when I called them last midnight [February 25], they told me they did not have him. At this point, I don’t know where he is and whether he is alive or dead.”
“Those who ordered and carried out the disappearances of these ill and injured people are putting their lives at risk and should be held accountable for any harm their prisoners suffer,” Whitson said.
The actual number of people detained during or in relation to the protests in Aden is likely to be much higher than has been confirmed so far.
Representatives of the National Solidarity Council, a national institution providing a meeting space for tribes and intellectuals under the paramount Shaikh Husain Abdullah al-Ahmar, told Human Rights Watch that they believe 35 protesters are being held by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in Aden and about two dozen more in Aden’s Shaikh ‘Uthman police station, its Central Security jail, and Political Security jail.
Human Rights Watch could not independently verify this information.
Under international law, a government’s refusal to acknowledge the detention of an individual or the person’s whereabouts following detention or arrest by state forces is an enforced disappearance.
Yemen has not yet ratified the 2006 UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
In a previous report on Yemen published in 2008, Disappearances and Arbitrary Arrests in the Context of Yemen’s War with Huthi Rebels, Human Rights Watch found that Political Security emerged as the most likely government body responsible for enforced disappearances.
Many of those “disappeared” in Yemen have eventually been released or their whereabouts reported. But the families of some people forcibly disappeared did not know whether their relatives were alive, who their captors were, or their whereabouts, for months after their detention.