A Yemeni militia backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been accused of kidnapping several young “northerners” in the southern port city of Aden, with relatives alleging they have been wrongly detained, tortured and denied access to a fair trial.
In a series of videos and documents sent to Al Jazeera, the relatives said they had not heard from or seen their loved ones after they were picked up by the UAE-created Security Belt – a force set up in 2016 to police southern areas in the war-ravaged country.
The sister of Ahmed Abdullah Salam al-Meshwali, who was 19 when he went missing, said all she knew was that her brother was being held at Bir Ahmed, a military camp controlled by the Security Belt in Aden.
“My brother was in the second year of his studies at the University of Aden. One day, he came to visit us in Taiz. Upon returning, he was arrested.
“We later found out that he’s been imprisoned at Bir Ahmed – an Emirati-run prison. We need him released.”
The mother of Farouk Abdulla Sana’i, a 17-year-old who was abducted at a military checkpoint in Aden, said she was only notified of his arrest 18 months after he went missing.
“My son went to find work in Aden and support me and his five sisters. He was the sole breadwinner after my husband died.
“After more than a year and a half of his arrest, someone from the prison called and said ‘I’m going to do you a favour and let you speak to your son.’
“When I talked to Farouk, he said: ‘Mother, help me get out from here, I’m going to die.'”
Lynn Maalouf, director of research at Amnesty International in the Middle East, told Al Jazeera that there had been an “uptick in arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances across the country.
“In the south, there have been very credible investigations into a vast network of secret detention centres where hundreds of men and boys are being arbitrarily detained.
“Many of them, months at a time without any contact with the outside world,” Maalouf said.
Last year, The Associated Press news agency reported that torture, heavy beatings and sexual assault were rife in the informal prisons set up by the UAE and its allied forces.
Drawing on accounts from former detainees, lawyers and Yemeni officials, AP reported that there were at least 18 clandestine prisons across southern Yemen and they were all “either hidden or off limits to Yemen’s government”.
One man told AP that he was tied to a horizontal pole and spun around inside a circle of flame, a torture method called “the grill”.
Radhya al-Mutawakel, chairperson and cofounder of Mwatana, an independent Yemeni human rights organisation, said that while prisoner exchanges were regularly undertaken by both sides, civilians were being left behind.
“Most of the detainees languishing in prisons are civilians. [My organisation] constantly hears of fighters being exchanged, but civilians are the ones to suffer long periods in detention, Mutawakel told Al Jazeera.
“The are many reports of people being tortured until death,” she said.
“The international community has prioritised the end to air strikes and bombings, and continues to call for a political settlement, but nothing is being done for those held without charge.
“My brother-in-law was detained almost a year ago in Marib. My sister doesn’t know where he is, whether he’s alive or not.
“There has to be pressure on both sides to stop these violations.”