Yemen: Whose Law?
Family members of victims of drone strikes in the country say justice has not been done.
This is part one of a two-part article on counterterrorism strategy in Yemen.
Sanaa – As a report issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee on a CIA detention programme has prompted a bout of introspection on the legality and efficacy of the US-led “war on terror”, many in Yemen – a frontline state in that war – are also re-examining the effects of a seemingly never-ending conflict in their own backyard.
Yemen’s transitional government, according to analysts and human rights groups, continues to condone extrajudicial killings of people it could arrest, detains people without due process and turns to tribal law to cover up its mistakes.
One victim of such practises was Adnan al-Qadhi.
“Adnan liked life; he didn’t want to die,” Himyar al-Qadhi says of his brother, who was killed in a drone strike in the family’s home village, Beyt al-Ahmar, in November 2012. “The Americans killed him.”
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Qadhi was at the very least sympathetic to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni wing of the extremist group, people with knowledge of his activities say. His brother denies even a tangential connection but when, in 2008, the government called and asked him to bring his brother in for questioning in relation to an attack on the US embassy that had taken place that year, he acquiesced. He would have done the same four years later, Himyar said, but this time, he was not asked.
Other victims include the 12 people killed in a strike by a US-controlled drone outside the city of Radah in December 2013. “They were on their way to the village as part of a wedding,” says Nasser Assanna, a Yemeni journalist based in the restive Mareb province, where many of those killed in the strike came from. “When I went to the hospital, the local media had already announced the attack and said it was against al-Qaeda. I talked to the sheikh; he told me it was a wedding convoy. The attack killed 12 people, and injured about 19. The sheikh’s son was killed and the bride was injured.”
While the wedding convoy may well have been transporting active members of AQAP at one point, by the time the four hellfire missiles, again launched from a US-controlled drone, hit the convoy, they were no longer present. Instead, 12 people with no proven links to the group were killed instantly.
For more than a decade now, the Arab world’s poorest country has been the frontline of the US-led “war on terror” – at best, an ambiguous project aimed at bringing to heel al-Qaeda and extremist groups like it in order to prevent a repeat of the events of September 11, 2001.
I asked, why didn't you ask me this time? Is there new information in this case? They said, this is the US. That was it.
The campaign has involved the invasion of two countries, the detention without trial of hundreds of people – many of whom can now be said to have been tortured – and the deaths of thousands through targeted assassinations by elite US military operatives and at the hands of remotely piloted unmanned drones loaded with Hellfire missiles in countries across the world.
According to the London-headquartered Bureau of Investigative Journalism, more than 100 drone strikes have taken place in Yemen since their use was first recorded in 2002, resulting in at least 362 deaths (the actual number, the bureau says, could in fact be well above 1,000).
Around a fifth of those killed have been civilians. Others, like Qadhi, could probably have been arrested rather than killed.
The Yemeni government has detained dozens of people suspected of links to al-Qaeda on the behalf of the US, often without trial. Most famously, Abduleilah Haider Shayea, a Yemeni journalist with a contact list full of al-Qaeda operatives, was jailed in 2010 for providing material support to the group. He was later sentenced to five years in prison at a trial that Human Rights Watch said was deeply flawed.
Yemen is often described as a lawless country, a borderline failed state where the government’s authority does not stretch much further than the outer limits of its major cities, and where even then, that authority is fragile at best. The inaccessibility of its rugged interior, where tribal law trumps government writ, has created space for groups like AQAP to operate, analysts say.
But Yemenis are increasingly asking whether or not the state has any interest in upholding the laws that protect their basic rights – and what, exactly, current counterterrorism strategy is doing to improve domestic security.
Since his brother’s death, Qadhi has questioned whether or not the drone strike was necessary. “I said, if you had asked me I would have brought him in like last time,” Qadhi says, reiterating the fact that when his brother had been accused of working with AQAP in the past, he had brought him in and he was released without charge.
“I asked, why didn’t you ask me this time? Is there new information in this case? They said, this is the US. That was it.” At the time of his death, Qadhi was still enlisted in the Yemeni military and continued to collect a 120,000 Yemeni rials ($558) monthly salary from the Post Office. “Even now the government still pays his salary,” says his brother, who believes the payment constitutes an effective payoff.
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Two days after the wedding convoy attack, the governor of Mareb and a local military commander met with a local tribal leader, apologising for the deaths. At the same time, the government was still publicly claiming that the attack had killed AQAP operatives. “I said, it is not good to announce that you have hit al-Qaeda while you are here apologising for these drone strikes,” says Assanna, who attended the meeting.
The governor brought 100 AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles and 35 million rials ($175,000) in cash as an initial peace offering. Later, settlements were made with each of the families affected by the strike. For each of the dead, the government paid 12.75 million rials ($59,300).
Those who were injured were paid one million rials ($4,650). “All the families were made to sign an agreement that they could not take legal action against the government,” Assanna says. “For them, the matter is closed now.”
|Yemen has been a frontline state in the US’ ‘war on terror’ [EPA]|
It is unlikely that an attempt to sue the government through the formal courts system would have been successful, though.
Since 2011, already ineffective courts have effectively ground to a halt. Many judges have been on strike since 2013, complaining that the government does not provide security for them or adequately fund courts.
“Especially now, the courts, the judges and the judiciary system in general is not doing anything,” says Yehya al-Mawri, a well-known Yemeni judge who played a leading role in the creation of a formal judicial system in Yemen during its early days as a republic.
“They can’t do anything because the government doesn’t have any effect. The law has no effect any more.”
A government official acknowledges this issue. “But the government has limited resources,” he says.
Yet it is also unlikely that such a case would be heard, as Qadhi learned when he went to see leading government officials about his brother’s death. As long as Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – who relies heavily on US support to maintain his position – is in power, judges would refuse to hear his case, Qadhi says he was told.
“The judge, he told me, talked to the police,” he says. “I told him, Hadi and Obama killed my brother. He said that when Hadi is not president any more you can ask this question… I don’t want money. I just ask one question. Why didn’t you ask me to bring him in, my brother? If you kill him you kill the information. Bring him here and ask him the question and then you know. This is crazy. I am very angry.”
Part two will be published on Monday.