US, Saudis Accused of Brutal Torture, Interrogations in Yemen
June 25, 2017
The Associated Press
Yemen's internationally-recognized government on Saturday ordered the creation of a committee to investigate allegations of human rights violations, following reports that US military interrogators worked with forces from the United Arab Emirates who are accused of torturing detainees in Yemen. At least 18 detention centers have been accused of using extreme forms of torture -- including the "grill," in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire.
In Yemen's Secret Prisons, UAE Tortures and US Interrogates
Maggie Michael / Associated Press
MUKALLA, Yemen (June 22, 2017) -- Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme -- including the "grill," in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that US forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.
The AP documented at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces created and trained by the Gulf nation, drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers and Yemeni military officials. All are either hidden or off limits to Yemen's government, which has been getting Emirati help in its civil war with rebels over the last two years.
The secret prisons are inside military bases, ports, an airport, private villas and even a nightclub. Some detainees have been flown to an Emirati base across the Red Sea in Eritrea, according to Yemen Interior Minister Hussein Arab and others.
Several US defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the topic, told AP that American forces do participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies. They said US senior military leaders were aware of allegations of torture at the prisons in Yemen, looked into them, but were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when US forces were present.
"We always adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional conduct," said chief Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White when presented with AP's findings. "We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights."
In a statement to the AP, the UAE's government denied the allegations.
"There are no secret detention centers and no torture of prisoners is done during interrogations."
Inside war-torn Yemen, however, lawyers and families say nearly 2,000 men have disappeared into the clandestine prisons, a number so high that it has triggered near-weekly protests among families seeking information about missing sons, brothers and fathers.
None of the dozens of people interviewed by AP contended that American interrogators were involved in the actual abuses. Nevertheless, obtaining intelligence that may have been extracted by torture inflicted by another party would violate the International Convention Against Torture and could qualify as war crimes, said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University who served as special counsel to the Defense Department until last year
At one main detention complex at Riyan airport in the southern city of Mukalla, former inmates described being crammed into shipping containers smeared with feces and blindfolded for weeks on end. They said they were beaten, trussed up on the "grill," and sexually assaulted. According to a member of the Hadramawt Elite, a Yemeni security force set up by the UAE, American forces were at times only yards away. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
"We could hear the screams," said a former detainee held for six months at Riyan airport. "The entire place is gripped by fear. Almost everyone is sick, the rest are near death. Anyone who complains heads directly to the torture chamber." He was flogged with wires, part of the frequent beatings inflicted by guards against all the detainees. He also said he was inside a metal shipping container when the guards lit a fire underneath to fill it with smoke.
Like other ex-detainees, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested again. The AP interviewed him in person in Yemen after his release from detention.
The AP interviewed 10 former prisoners, as well as a dozen officials in the Yemeni government, military and security services and nearly 20 relatives of detainees. The chief of Riyan prison, who is well known among families and lawyers as Emirati, did not reply to requests for comment.
Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said the abuses "show that the US hasn't learned the lesson that cooperating with forces that are torturing detainees and ripping families apart is not an effective way to fight extremist groups." Human Rights Watch issued a report Thursday documenting torture and forced disappearances at the UAE-run prisons and calling on the Emirates to protect detainees' rights.
Amnesty International called for a U.N.-led investigation "into the UAE's and other parties' role in setting up this horrific network of torture" and into allegations the US interrogated detainees or received information possibly obtained from torture. "It would be a stretch to believe the US did not know or could not have known that there was a real risk of torture," said Amnesty's director of research in the Middle East, Lynn Maalouf.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has praised the UAE as "Little Sparta" for its outsized role in fighting against al-Qaida.
US forces send questions to the Emirati forces holding the detainees, which then send files and videos with answers, said Yemeni Brig. Gen. Farag Salem al-Bahsani, commander of the Mukalla-based 2nd Military District, which American officials confirmed to the AP. He also said the United States handed authorities a list of most wanted men, including many who were later arrested.
Al-Bahsani denied detainees were handed over to the Americans and said reports of torture are "exaggerated."
The network of prisons echoes the secret detention facilities set up by the CIA to interrogate terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama disbanded the so-called "black sites." The UAE network in war-torn Yemen was set up during the Obama administration and continues operating to this day.
"The UAE was one of the countries involved in the CIA's torture and rendition program," said Goodman, the NYU law professor. "These reports are hauntingly familiar and potentially devastating in their legal and policy implications."
The UAE is part of a Saudi-led, US-backed coalition meant to help Yemen's government fight Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who overran the north of the country. At the same time, the coalition is helping the US target al-Qaida's local branch, one of the most dangerous in the world, as well as Islamic State militants.
A small contingent of American forces routinely moves in and out of Yemen, the Pentagon says, operating largely along the southern coast. Under the Trump administration, the US has escalated drone strikes in the country to more than 80 so far this year, up from around 21 in 2016, the US military said. At least two commando raids were ordered against al-Qaida, including one in which a Navy SEAL was killed along with at least 25 civilians.
A US role in questioning detainees in Yemen has not been previously acknowledged.
A Yemeni officer who said he was deployed for a time on a ship off the coast said he saw at least two detainees brought to the vessel for questioning. The detainees were taken below deck, where he was told American "polygraph experts" and "psychological experts" conducted interrogations. He did not have access to the lower decks. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for discussing the operations.
Senior US defense officials flatly denied the military conducts any interrogations of Yemenis on any ships.
"We have no comment on these specific claims," said Jonathan Liu, a CIA spokesman, adding that any allegations of abuse are taken seriously.
The Yemeni officer did not specify if the 'Americans on ships' were US military or intelligence personnel, private contractors, or some other group.
Two senior Yemen officials, one in Hadi's Interior Ministry and another in the 1st Military District, based in Hadramawt province where Mukalla is located, also said Americans were conducting interrogations at sea, as did a former senior security official in Hadramawt. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the US role.
The AP learned the names of five suspects held at black sites who were said to have been interrogated by Americans. The Yemeni official on the ship identified one of the detainees brought there. Four others were identified by former detainees who said they were told directly by the men themselves that they were questioned by Americans.
One detainee, who was not questioned by US personnel, said he was subject to constant beatings by his Yemeni handlers but was interrogated only once.
"I would die and go to hell rather than go back to this prison," he said. "They wouldn't treat animals this way. If it was bin Laden, they wouldn't do this."
Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor and Desmond Butler in Washington and Ahmed al-Haj and Maad al-Zikry in Yemen contributed to this report.
Yemen to Probe Alleged Interrogation Abuses by UAE, US
Ahmed Al-Haj / Associated Press
SANAA, Yemen (June 24, 2017) -- Yemen's internationally-recognized government on Saturday ordered the creation of a committee to investigate allegations of human rights violations, following reports that US military interrogators worked with forces from the United Arab Emirates who are accused of torturing detainees in Yemen.
A copy of the order issued by Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr was obtained by The Associated Press. It said the investigation would focus on areas liberated by government forces from Shiite rebels known as the Houthis and their allies.
The six-member committee will be chaired by Justice Minister Jamal Mohamed Omar and include representatives from the Human Rights Ministry, security agencies and the prosecution. It will immediately start work and have 15 days to conclude its investigation and report back to bin Daghr.
The reports of the abuses were revealed in an AP investigation published Thursday. The investigation detailed a network of secret prisons across southern Yemen where hundreds are detained in the hunt for al-Qaida militants. American defense officials said US forces have interrogated some detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in, or knowledge of, human rights abuses.
Defense officials told the AP that the department had looked into reports of torture and concluded that its personnel were not involved or aware of any abuses. The American officials confirmed that the US provides questions to the Emiratis and receives transcripts of their interrogations.
The officials said the US also provides information to the UAE on suspected al-Qaida militants that the US believes should be apprehended or questioned.
The 18 lock-ups mentioned in the AP investigation are run by the UAE and by Yemeni forces it created, according to accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers and Yemeni military officials.
At the Riyan airport in the southern Yemeni city of Mukalla, former inmates described shipping containers smeared with feces and crammed with blindfolded detainees. They said they were beaten, roasted alive on a spit and sexually assaulted, among other abuses. One witness, who is a member of a Yemeni security force, said American forces were at times only yards (meters) away.
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Friday that the allegations are "completely untrue" and a "political game" by Yemeni militias to discredit a Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE and which has been fighting since 2015 on the side of the internationally-recognized government against the rebels. It says it does not run or oversee any prisons in Yemen, and that any such facilities are under "the jurisdiction of the legitimate Yemeni authorities."
Most of the clandestine sites are run by either the Hadramawt Elite or Security Belt, Yemeni forces that were created, trained and financed by the UAE. Officially, they are under the authority of Yemen's internationally-recognized government, but multiple Yemeni government officials told the AP they have no control over them and they answer to the Emiratis.
It was not immediately clear whether the committee set up on Saturday by the Yemeni government would gain access to any of the lockups and whether its findings could lead to action that may end the abuses. Yemeni rights lawyers and activists were skeptical about the outcome, saying they did not expect commanders of the two UAE-backed military outfits to meaningfully assist in the investigation.
Relations between Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the UAE have been fraught with tension, chiefly over allegations by the Yemeni leader that the Emiratis are offering patronage to southern Yemeni politicians campaigning for secession as well as what he sees as UAE violations of his country's sovereignty.
In Washington, pressure has been mounting on the US Defense Department after multiple US senators called for investigations into the reports, with John McCain, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the ranking Democrat, Jack Reed, calling the reports "deeply disturbing."
McCain and Reed wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis Friday asking him to conduct an immediate review of the reported abuses and what US forces knew.
"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 senators wrote Mattis. "We are confident that you find these allegations as extremely troubling as we do."
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, also called for an investigation and noted that support for the UAE forces could violate a law he wrote that forbids funding to known human rights violators.
"Reports of acts of torture by agents of a government that is supported by the United States, and the possibility that US military personnel may have been aware of it, should ring alarm bells at the Department of Defense," Leahy said in a statement to the AP.
The American Civil Liberties Union also said Friday that it had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for US records related to the interrogations.
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