Yemen’s warring parties urged to reveal whereabouts of detainees

A group of eight human rights organizations called on Yemen's rival factions to urgently release all of their arbitrarily detained prisoners.

al-monitor Yemeni prisoners, said to belong to the Saudi-backed government forces, line up as they are prepared to be released by Houthi rebels from the central prison in the capital, Sanaa, on Sept. 30, 2019. Rights groups are hoping to see more civilians freed. Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images.

Sep 2, 2020

A group of international and local human rights organizations have called on Yemen’s warring parties to reveal the whereabouts of scores of civilians forcibly disappeared, as well as to immediately release all who are arbitrarily detained in official and unofficial prisons. 

Wrongfully held detainees are “an important issue that touches the lives of thousands of Yemeni families who are left to their own devices in fighting for truth and justice for their loved ones,” organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Yemen-based Mothers of Abductees Association and the independent Yemeni group Mwatana for Human Rights wrote in an open letter published today. 

The eight organizations urged parties to the conflict to create prison registries, allow independent monitors to visit the detention centers and give prisoners access to their families and lawyers. 

The war between the Houthi rebels, who overran the capital in 2014, and the Saudi and Emirati-led military coalition, which intervened the following year to restore the internationally recognized government, has created what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The protracted conflict has killed tens of thousands and left roughly 80% of the country reliant on humanitarian aid. 

The Houthis and pro-government forces agreed to release thousands of prisoners as part of United Nations-brokered peace talks in Stockholm in 2018. But prisoner exchanges so far have prioritized military detainees over civilians, the rights organizations said. 

In a report released in June, Mwatana documented a total of 1,605 cases of arbitrary detention and 770 cases of enforced disappearance since 2016 by all of Yemen’s warring parties, including the Yemeni government, the Houthis, the United Arab Emirates and Emirati-backed forces. 

In one high-profile case, a court in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa in April sentenced four journalists to death for treason and espionage. A number of other journalists remain missing, including Waheed al-Sufi, who was abducted more than five years ago. 

Imprisoned Yemenis are also at risk from unlawful attacks on their detention centers. In August 2019, coalition airstrikes hit a Houthi-run prison site in the city of Dhamar and killed nearly 170 people, according to Mwatana. 

“The need to reveal the fate of the arbitrarily detained and the forcibly disappeared is ever more pressing,” the rights groups said, writing that COVID-19 is spreading unchecked throughout Yemen and detainees living in unsanitary, overcrowded prisons are especially vulnerable. 

Poorly maintained detention facilities are also at risk of collapsing due to the recent flash flooding that killed hundreds, displaced thousands of families and damaged infrastructure across Yemen.

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