In late June, The Associated Press (AP) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has established a web 18 “black site” prisons in Yemen. Hidden in military bases, air and seaports, and private villas, these secret detention facilities have been host to a variety of human rights abuses, such as arbitrary detention and torture.
According to HRW, Emirati forces and local Yemeni groups backed by the UAE have forcibly disappeared dozens of individuals to these secret detention facilities on suspicions of affiliation with extremist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Yemen’s branch of the Islamic State (IS-Y).
HRW documented 49 cases of arbitrary detention and/or forced disappearance over the past year in the Yemeni governorates of Aden and Hadramawt, including four children. At least 39 of these cases were detained by UAE-backed personnel. The prisoners are mostly held incommunicado.
The AP and HRW reports indicate that interrogators at these black sites regularly subject detainees to torture. Six former inmates corroborated that dozens of the detainees were crammed into a three-by-ten shipping container, left blindfolded, and bound by their hands and feet for months at a time. Detainees feared one particular interrogator, known only as “the Doctor, for his especially brutal techniques, such as hanging weights from detainees’ genitals and pulling on them. The detainees believe that “the Doctor” was Emirati. At the detention center located in the Riyan airport, security personnel subjected another detainee to a fake execution, in which he was told while blindfolded that they had strapped an explosive suicide belt to him, and then set off a sound grenade nearby.
The most infamous method of torture employed in these detention centers is called “the grill.” Interrogators strap detainees horizontally to a metal pole and spin them like a roast in a circle of fire. They spun one prisoner so fast that he vomited blood.
All forms of torture, including the methods listed above, are prohibited under the United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT), to which the UAE acceded to in July 2012.
Nevertheless, the Emirati government has a record of torturing domestic prisoners as well as individuals detained in Yemen. For example, in August 2015, Emirati authorities arbitrarily detained and forcefully disappeared prominent academic and economist, Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith. They reportedly beat bin Ghaith and deprived him of sleep for a week.
In addition to documenting UAE officials committing the acts of torture, the AP and HRW reports also raise concern about the potential involvement of the United States (US). Officials from the Department of Defense (DOD) have admitted that US personnel have interrogated detainees in Yemen as part of counterterror operations, but they deny all allegations of being complicit in torture. In fact, the DOD denied that US personnel even knew about human rights violations occurring in the UAE-linked detention centers. One Yemeni employee at the Riyan airport reiterated that when American personnel were present, no abuses occurred against prisoners.
However, Cori Crider, a lawyer and member of human rights organization, Reprieve, refuted these claims in an article published on 25 June 2017 in The Atlantic. Crider visited one of the UAE-linked detention centers in Yemen in 2010 at the request of an American detainee’s family. Crider was reportedly only permitted to visit the site, called “Political Security,” and see the detainee due to his status as an American citizen. He told her that US personnel had verbally abused him, claiming that they promised him that he would be raped in a Yemeni jail and that his wife and daughter would face a similar fate. When the citizen asked two American interrogators about his constitutional rights, one of them responded by saying, “there is no Constitution here, son.”
US politicians have also voiced concern that American personnel have contributed to human rights violations in these Yemeni detention centers. On the same day that the AP report was released, US senators John McCain and Jack Reed, both veterans, wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis asking for a review of the allegations and procedures of US personnel serving in counterterror operations in Yemen. They wrote, “Even the suggestion that the United States tolerates torture by our foreign partners compromises our national security mission by undermining the moral principle that distinguishes us from our enemies— our belief that all people possess basic human rights.” The United States is a signatory to the CAT, meaning that if the allegations were true, the US would be acting in violation of the international treaty.
Following the reports, victims of torture in UAE stepped forward to share their experiences, such as David Haigh. Emirati police detained Haigh on two separate occasions, torturing him and denying him access to healthcare and legal assistance. Activists in Yemen have also orchestrated a Twitter campaign calling on individuals to expose the torture by providing further evidence. In the wake of the reports, local authorities in Hadramawt allegedly released 21 people accused of being members of Al Qaeda, claiming that, “[those released] are not dangerou elements.”
The human rights violations occurring in Yemen must be brought to an end. It is crucial that UAE-backed forces immediately halt the practices of arbitrary detention and forced disappearance. The UAE-run black site prisons must be shut down immediately and all illegally held prisoners released and adequately compensated.
Additionally, the US must terminate any operation with foreign security forces involved in the use of torture and consider suspending all security assistance to countries implicated in such human rights abuses.
Alex DiBell is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB.