After five days of fighting that left 124 dead, Yemen struggles through political and economic uncertainty.
|Though some anti-government protesters were killed in clashes with security forces, many others have died at the hands of guards in prisons or during military sieges [EPA]|
Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s violent suppression of peaceful demonstrators since February, and his seeming determination to drive his country to civil war must surely be embarrassing to his former allies and sponsors. Chief among them, the US and Saudi governments must be aghast with horror at the upheaval today. But his regime was brutal – and his rule arbitrary – long before the revolutionary demonstrations swept east from Tunisia to Egypt and on to Yemen. When he is gone will the structure of terror he created remain?
Twenty-three year old Badr al Sabili was a student in Sanaa University, and an active member in the loyal opposition Islamist party, al Islah. In the 2006 presidential elections, he volunteered as an election monitor. His whole family supported al Islah. On election day, neighbours told Badr that the ‘aqil, or neighbourhood headman, called Muhamad Adhib, had threatened him – warning that if he was “curious” he might be arrested by the Political Security force.
In early 2010 he was on the street with his brother Tariq, and his friends Muhamad and Amin al Mishriqi when they ran into an old high school friend called Ahmad Bajali. They chatted for about thirty minutes. It would be a fateful meeting for Badr and Amin.
Activism – arrests – interrogations
At 10:00pm on May 4, 2010, the ‘aqil once again warned Badr’s neighbour that he and his brother Tariq should “stop being curious”. Their other brother Muhamad was also an Islah activist, and posted signs for the opposition candidate in the neighbourhood. The ‘aqil Muhamad Adhib was an informer for Political Security, Badr’s family told me. Adhib hated Badr for his support of the Islah party. The next day Badr was shopping on Sanaa’s Shmeila street with a neighbour called Muhamad Natash. Armed civilians suddenly emerged from two white cars and grabbed him forcefully from behind. Muhamad went to Badr’s house to tell his family. That evening they found out through contacts that he was being held by Political Security forces.
Two days after Badr’s arrest, “security men” came to his house and seized a computer hard drive and storage device. Following Badr’s arrest, his brother Tariq was followed around the university and streets by Political Security officers who asked people if he was with Islah, the Houthis, or al-Qaeda. They came to his house to arrest him, but he was not home.
Badr was interrogated about his relationship with Ahmad Bajali, the young man he had run into on the street several months before. Bajali turned out to be a salafi and suspected al-Qaeda member – and was arrested and held for about a year – finally being released in February 2011 thanks to powerful connections.
The Political Security interrogator was mainly interested in Badr’s relationship with Bajali. Badr’s interrogation lasted five days, and during this time he was forced to stand with his hands up for many hours.
After 45 days, the family was allowed to finally see Badr. “The first time we saw him he looked like a crazy guy,” his brother Tariq told me, “he looked unhealthy, he was thinner.” Whenever the family meets with Badr there are always two soldiers standing next to him.
Badr was never charged with anything. The family tried to obtain his release with the help of a lawyer but it was in vain. “Politcal Security ignores us,” Tariq told me, “they say there is nothing, ‘we will call you if there is anything’.” The family believes their neighbourhood ‘aqil had a hand in Badr’s arrest. The Islah party tried to help but failed.
Badr’s friend Amin was arrested one week after him, on May 12. He too was a member of Islah, but less active than Badr. When Amin’s family first saw him his face was heavily bruised from being beaten.
Reports from Yemen justifiably focus on the regime’s latest assaults on peaceful protestors, but the country’s problems are deeper than the latest crisis. “Our concern is directed towards the violations that are institutional,” human rights lawyer Magid al Malhagy of the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights told me, “the organised behaviour violating the law by security forces, the phenomena of torture – and sexual harassment against women.”
When I met him in February, two women from the town of Amran had just been raped by officers from the General Security department. Two officers named Yasser Madgha and Abdelkarim al Hamzi, as well as eleven policemen from Amran’s General Security, raided the home of a family with a “bad reputation”. The officer “disciplined” 30-year-old Amat and her 55-year-old mother Fatima by raping them, all while 30-year-old Sabah was groped. There were also children in the house.
The family made a claim against the rapists and the next day the women’s two husbands were arrested in order to pressure them to revoke their claim and deny their accusations. The husbands remained in jail but were not charged with any crime. “In sexual cases where police are involved, the organs of justice try to disable the law and justice from continuing the case,” Magid told me. “Womens’ cases generally go silent but women are exposed to sexual harassment in security forces stations when they get arrested. It’s a way to apply pressure on them during investigation.” Magid had never seen justice served when security forces were accused of sexual assault, and he had seen many such cases.
Magid visited the Muqala prison in Hadramawt and witnessed guards attacking prisoners. “It was directly in front of me,” he said, “There was an electrical cable and they lashed people to disperse them around and not crowd around. The prison director Abdallah Al Sa’idi said there were not enough guards and more than 800 prisoners, and they had to use force to control them.
The torture in prison is continuous. Guards tie prisoners’ arms to a high window, making the inmates stand on their toes all day long – and beat them with a stick or bar on the body and head. They claim it is for disciplining the prisoners.
I entered the female prisons and one of the female prisoners told me they are also tortured, that they are also hanged by the wrist. If a female prisoner makes problems, “they hang them like the men, and they are being exposed to verbal violence from guards”.
Magid wanted more attention on the torture committed by the criminal investigation department of the Ministry of Interior and on the arbitrary nature of the security agencies. While Central Security was supposed to be part of the Ministry of Interior, it was independent in practice. Political Security was controlled by the president, as was National Security and various intelligence agencies. In addition, there was the president’s special intelligence unit – whose existence was not officially declared.
“It’s considered the dirty and unofficial hand of the presidency,” he explained. “It was this unit that arrested the journalist Muhamad al Magalih. The president gives himself a space in cases that concern him or interest him personally,” he said. “We know this apparatus exists but is not official and its not usually used, only in certain cases.”
‘Torture part of security apparatus’
Magid said that the US had trained the Counter-Terrorism Unit and the National Security Forces. “CTU officially belongs to the Ministry of Interior, but unofficially it’s the hand of National Security. These two apparatuses commit the most violations. In cases of illegal arrest, torture, beating, forced disappearance, these two are the most involved. National Security and Political Security torture, but everybody knows about it. We want to spotlight Criminal investigation because nobody knows about it and they think its their right to torture to get information. When they torture they torture normal poor people – not journalists or others – and they go silent and don’t talk about it because they think it’s a legal procedure. Its repeated every day. It’s frightening how common it is.”
Magid interviewed a female prisoner who was interrogated for hours while she was beaten, kicked, stomped on with military boots and tortured with electricity. “This is a common practice,” he said. “They use electrical wires that leave little traces on the wrist. They make them confess. But it becomes a practice that is independent, not just to get information. It became an element of and behaviour of criminal investigation members and it’s a way to prove that they have power.”
One incident of security force abuse would become a cause for demonstrators in southern Yemen – much as the murder of Khaled Said by Egyptian police became a rallying cry for Cairo’s youth. On June 24, 2010, 25-year-old Ahmad Darwish was arrested late at night at a neighbour’s house. Security forces broke into the house in search of a member of an Islamist group. About seven men from Central Security forces arrested Ahmad and two other men with him. Ahmad struggled during the arrest. He was beaten in the police car.
At the criminal investigation office he was separated from other prisoners and taken to a cell where he was beaten by a guard. He was beaten all day. The next morning. his brother Anwar was called. “Come and take your brother to the hospital, he is very sick,” they told him. Anwar arrived and found Ahmad lying on the ground in a sea of blood. Ahmad was vomiting. He told Anwar that the previous night the guards had injected him with something. Minutes later, Ahmad died.
Ahmad was not wanted by security forces. He had no criminal record and was not politically active, but the security men wanted to discipline him. “Torture is part of the performance of the security apparatus,” Magid explained to me. “They punish him, and take the confession, especially in criminal investigation, its a haven for torture.”
Nir Rosen is an US journalist who writes on current and international affairs. He has contributed to The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, among others. His latest book is Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.