Three Years of Arbitrary Detention: The US Must Take a Stand Against UAE Human Rights Violations
By Attiya Latif, Government Relations and Advocacy Intern, Amnesty International USA
In addition to three years of civil war, the people of Yemen face yet another affront to their human dignity and safety. In a recently published report entitled “God Only Knows If He’s Alive,” Amnesty International follows the desperate search for dozens of missing people in southern Yemen who were summed by the UAE military authorities and never seen again by their loved ones. For three years, their family members have waited in desperation and terror as their missing relatives were subjected to torture, ill-treatment, and a shocking range of abuses exposed by human rights groups.
In 2011, Yemenis took to the streets to protest the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, which they accused of fanning corruption, violating human rights and mismanaging the economy. After Saleh’s subsequent resignation, then-vice president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi took power. The country soon began to fracture as Saleh aligned with Houthi rebels and began an armed campaign to retake the country. In 2015, nine Arab states including the UAE and led by Saudi Arabia intervened against the Houthi rebels.
Since the eruption of civil war , the UAE has played a key role in military operations in Southern Yemen, where it has established a major military presence. Where they are present, UAE soldiers often compliment or duplicate the role of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. It is this security structure that has engaged in the forced disappearances and arbitrary arrests of hundreds of Yemenis.
UAE forces have said that the arrests are about “targeting terrorists.” Yet former detainees, family members, and Yemeni officials have challenged the arrests as arbitrary, saying they were carried out “without warrants or an explanation why individuals are being arrested.” In many cases, those critical of UAE and Coalition war tactics have been arrested. In other cases, the detained were simply victims in a case of mistaken identity. Many families told Amnesty international that their sons were held because another brother or relative had been linked to an armed group or had previously been arrested.
Between March 2016 and 2018, Amnesty International has investigated over 50 cases of forced disappearance and arbitrary arrest by UAE –backed Yemeni security forces and the UAE itself. The whereabouts of 19 of the missing family members in these cases remains unknown. Where details are available, they paint a horrific picture of torture, ill-treatment, and death in custody.
In many cases, masked security forces appear in the dead of night or the crack of dawn. They turn weapons on family members, and drag others away using excessive force amid the screams of women and children. They show no warrant and provide no reason for the arrest. Many victims recount how the security forces robbed their homes during the arrest, pocketing valuables including electronics, computers, gold jewelry and just cash.
The consequences for those left behind can be brutal. The arrests themselves are traumatic for anyone even tangentially involved. One father, whose 18 year old boy was taken, told Amnesty that his other children remain terrified every time there is a knock on the door. Family members face a dismal, years-long period of waiting. Many relatives, desperate for answers, have taken to visiting the doors of government and prosecutorial officials and asking where and why detainees where taken. Officials refuse to respond to their pleas and provide no information. The arbitrary detentions have also had a devastating financial impact on families, as many of the detained were breadwinners. One sister of a detainee told Amnesty, “We can’t afford medication, we can barely afford to eat.”
Detainees held by UAE soldiers or UAE-supported Yemeni forces are often tortured in horrific ways that offend the most basic precepts of human decency. Detainees interviewed by Amnesty reported being waterboarded, beaten, shocked with electricity, and hanged from the ceiling for hours on end. One detainee was beaten for over two weeks and electrocuted in search of a confession to a crime he did not commit. Many of the detainees were starved. The brother of a detainee said, “the first time we visited [his brother], it was like they [the prisoners] had emerged from a famine. They were skin and bones.” The detainees were refused water, food, and medical attention. Many died of cholera and dengue fever; some “resorted to licking water from the floor.”
The UAE continues to deny its involvement in criminal detention practices despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government claims it cannot control what the UAE-backed forces do in areas under their control.
With both parties committing blatant human rights violations under a code of silence, it falls on the United States to take a stand. These detentions in the name of “justice” are a clear violation of human rights. By arbitrarily arresting and torturing civilians, the UAE’s shadowy network of prisons stands as a criminal structure that must be taken down. As a coalition-backing force, the United States has a clear obligation to hold its ally accountable for such horrendous actions. Congress must pressure the Trump administration to condemn the arbitrary detention and torture of victims. Without the US and other allied forces to hold the UAE’s security detail accountable through investigations, UAE forces will continue unfettered in their ill-treatment of civilians who deserve to have their rights respected. The United States must act. It is a moral prerogative in the name of human rights.