Rights group: Detainees in overcrowded Yemen prison at risk of COVID-19

Prisoners at an overcrowded detention center in Aden face serious health risks, Human Rights Watch says in a report.

al-monitor Southern Yemeni separatist fighters stand guard outside the headquarters of the Southern Transitional Council in Aden, Yemen, Nov. 5, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Fawaz Salman.

Jul 2, 2020

A prison linked to a separatist group in southern Yemen is at major risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, Human Rights Watch said today. 

At Bir Ahmed, a detention center affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council, prisoners lack masks, gloves and basic hygiene products, the rights group said. Relatives told Human Rights Watch that 44 detainees were transferred in early April to a 10-square-meter (108-square-foot) room that had previously held four people.

“The grossly overcrowded conditions and absence of health care at Aden’s Bir Ahmed facility threatens the lives of detainees and facility staff as Covid-19 spreads in Yemen,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The Southern Transitional Council authorities should urgently address the inhumane detention conditions and release those detained arbitrarily.”

The Mothers of Abductees Association, a group whose relatives have been detained by various armed groups, said the prisoners at Bir Ahmed have been held there for up to two years without charge. According to the association, at least one guard experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms died in May and another became extremely sick. 

In April, the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council declared self-rule in the southern port city of Aden and throughout the country’s southern governorates. 

The group was highlighted in a report this week from Yemeni rights organization Mwatana, which found that more than 1,000 people have been arbitrarily detained and hundreds more tortured by Yemen's warring parties. In Southern Transitional Council-run detention centers, prisoners have been subjected to a wide range of torture that included nail removal, forced nudity and threats to rape them and their families, the report said.

Mwatana, Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations have repeatedly called on the parties to the conflict to release unjustly held prisoners before the coronavirus reaches their detention facilities. 

Yemen has reported a relatively low number of infections, with most of the 1,221 reported by the internationally recognized government. Aid organizations say the virus is likely spreading undetected throughout the country, especially in the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa. 

After five years of conflict between the Saudi-backed military coalition and the Houthis, Yemen’s health care system is under severe strain. Health facilities were targeted at least 120 times by the conflict’s warring parties between 2015 and 2018, according to a report from the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights and Mwatana.

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