WORLD REPORT 1997 - Yemen

Human Rights Developments

The government of President Ali Abdallah Salih, which prevailed in Yemen=s 1994 civil war, further constricted civil and political rights in that country. In 1996 Yemen=s human rights profile compared unfavorably with the relative tolerance that had characterized the four years following the May 1990 unification of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People=s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and that ended with the civil war. In addition, the tribal-Islamist alliance embodied in the Reform (Islah) Party headed by Shaikh Abdallah al-Ahmar, the speaker of the Parliament, represented a coercive force somewhat autonomous from that of the state and the ruling General People=s Congress party, further contributing to constraints on the exercise of basic civil liberties and human rights.

At the same time, government control over Yemeni society remained less encompassing than in many other states in the region. Perhaps most significantly, human rights activists and political critics of the government were able to look to the courts as a frail but nonetheless useful defender of their constitutional rights to publish and to speak out.

The Political Security Organization (PSO), an agency that reported directly to President Salih and operated without any written authorization, was responsible for the harassment, beating, and detention without charge or trial of a number of government critics, and contributed to an atmosphere of intimidation. The PSO=s plainclothes agents also infiltrated and harassed the independent press, syndicates, and civic associations, in some cases forcing those organizations to cease their activities. Persons seeking to work for any government institution, such as Sana=a University, required clearance from the PSO.

The most serious instance of punishment outside any framework of law was the abduction in December 1995 of Abu Bakr al-Saqqaf, a sixty-one-year-old professor of philosophy at the University of Sana`a and columnist in Al-Ayyam, an independent newspaper published in Aden. Al-Saqqaf, who had been named minister of education by the secessionist government in 1994, had been abducted and beaten previously, in January 1995, but continued to write articles criticizing the government=s policies toward the southern part of the country. According to al-Saqqaf, unidentified men seized him near his home and threw him into a car without license plates. He said they demanded that he stop writing articles critical of the government as they beat him with sticks and an electric baton, fracturing his skull, breaking several teeth, and inflicting bruises on his torso. Al-Saqqaf and others charged that his assailants belonged to the PSO. The Ministry of Interior denied this and claimed to be investigating the second abduction, but no findings or arrests had been announced as this report went to press. Al-Saqqaf also faced harassment in the form of dismissal from his university post, but was reinstated by a court order.

Human Rights Watch received reports of similar attacks in the course of 1996. On July 11, Arafat Jamali Madabish, a reporter covering parliamentary affairs for the Socialist Party-affiliated newspaper Al-Thawri (Aden), was assaulted inside the parliament by guards and subsequently detained for several days without charge before being released. On August 19, Abd al-Ilah al-Marwani, a lawyer active in civil liberties cases, was attacked outside a court in Ibb, reportedly by persons known to be connected to the PSO. According to a letter from the Lawyers= Union to President Salih, al-Marwani had been Aattacked [physically] several times@ in connection with his representation in court of opposition newspapers.

Other forms of harassment of government critics were frequent. In December 1995, security officials at Sana`a airport interrogated and confiscated the papers of Dr. Muhammad Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil, a political science professor at Sana`a University and vice-president of the independent Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Liberties and Human Rights (YODLHR), and Hisham Basharahil, editor of the independent daily Al-Ayyam (Aden), on their return from academic conferences abroad. In February 1996, the government arbitrarily withheld the salary of Dr. Abdu al-Sharif, professor of political science at the University of Sana`a, following a lecture he delivered at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, on human rights and democracy in Yemen. Yemeni officials threatened Dr. Sharif and Dr. Muhammad Zabara with arrest and physical harm upon their return to Yemen because the Yemen Human Rights Report newsletter, which they co-edit, had directly referred to President Salih=s responsibility for human rights violations.

Opposition parties and independent organizations and publications critical of government policies were generally given legal status but faced routine harassment. Trade unions, professional associations, and other independent organizations were often the target of government efforts to manipulate their governing boards by packing meetings and replacing government critics with supporters. The government closed down the opposition weekly Al-Shura from mid-1995 through mid-1996, ostensibly because leadership of the party to which it is affiliatedCthe Union of Yemeni Popular ForcesCwas being contested by a government-backed former member.

Sana`a was the site of a January 1996 UNESCO-sponsored seminar on press freedom, which adopted a ADeclaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Arab Media.@ Unfortunately, the principles of the declaration were repeatedly breached in 1996 by legal and extralegal attacks on independent media and publications affiliated with legal opposition parties in Yemen. Fuad Bamatraf, the director of radio broadcasting in the southern port city of Mukalla, was arrested while covering clashes between demonstrators and security forces in mid-June (see below). Authorities also blocked distribution of the opposition newspaper Al-Tagammu (Aden) in connection with the same events, and the government-owned 14th October Printing Press subsequently refused for more than a month, for no stated reason, to honor its contract to print Al-Tagammu, forcing the paper to suspend publication. In August Salem al-Hilali, a cartoonist for Al-Tagammu, was banned from publishing his cartoons and PSO officers prevented an exhibition of his cartoons in Aden.

Al-Ayyam, an independent Aden-based weekly critical of the government, was also the target of harassment and intimidation. On September 28, plainclothes security officers entered its offices to seize journalist Abd al-Rahman Khubara, who also reports for Radio Kuwait. Khubara=s colleagues intervened, saying he could not be taken without a warrant. The officers left without Khubara but lay in wait outside, forcing him to remain in the office with colleagues overnight for fear of arrest. Al-Ayyam published a front-page account of the incident the next day, following which the PSO desisted. Khubara had been detained and interrogated by PSO officers for four days in 1995. On September 30, Muhammad al-Saqqaf, a physician and writer, appeared voluntarily for interrogation at the office of the attorney general in Sana`a and was charged with Apublishing false information with malicious intent@Ca violation of Yemen=s press lawCbecause of articles he had published critical of government preparations for parliamentary elections scheduled for April 1997. A trial date had not been set at the time of writing.

The Yemen Times (Sana`a), an English-language paper often critical of the government, charged in its July 1 issue that the PSO was effectively in control of the central post office, opening incoming mail and dumping copies of the Times that were addressed to international subscribers. On July 7, President Salih accused the Yemen Times and Al-Ayyam of Adubious practices.@ AI am directing an early warning to them because I know that the minister of information is hesitant to take legal measures against the papers,@ the president stated, according to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic daily, Abut I shall take the appropriate measures at the appropriate time.@

Clashes between crowds and security forces erupted in Mukalla in June 1996 in an episode that reflected widespread perception of discrimination by the northern-based government against southerners. The disturbances were set off by a state prosecutor=s remark, during a court hearing on a lawsuit filed by two southern women against the police for wrongful arrest and sexual molestation, to the effect that all southern women were Awhores.@ Over the course of several days of rioting, police fired on unarmed demonstrators, injuring seventeen. Although the court later ruled in favor of the two women and against the arresting officers, the incident illustrated the problems arising from the replacement of virtually all local security forces and government officials by northerners after the 1994 civil war.

The Mukalla case also highlighted the fact that the courts, alone among institutions of government, on occasion challenged abuses and attempts to restrict civil and political rights. Much of the credit rested with one judge in particular, Abd al-Malik al-Gindari, in the west Sana`a court, who ruled, for example, that Professor Abu Bakr al-Saqqaf should be reinstated, that the weekly Al-Shura could be closed only by a court order, thus allowing the weekly to reappear, and that the government could not shut down the independent Hadarim Welfare Association merely because it had received material support not routed through the ruling General People=s Congress party. The government threatened to reassign Judge al-Gindari to a small village, and also pressed for the Judges= Association to open its membership to prosecutors as well, a move judges argued would seriously impair its independence.

Prison conditions varied widely, and generally did not meet international standards. There continued to be an undetermined number of prisons not established or regulated by law that were associated with the PSO and with different ministries and high officials, including, reportedly, Speaker of Parliament Sheikh al-Ahmar. Many, possibly thousands of prisoners remained in detention for common crimes after many years without documentation regarding their trials or sentences. This reflected both a lack of resources devoted to the court and prison systems and a lack of political will to remedy the situation.

There were few reported cases of severe physical abuse of political detainees. There was, however, at least one case in 1996 of a suspicious death in detention. Ahmad Sa`id Bakhubira, thirty-five, was arrested in mid-June for allegedly being in contact with the National Opposition Front. PSO officials refused to cooperate with efforts of his father to locate him, and seventeen days later his body was discovered in a Mukalla hospital morgue. According to the YODLHR, Bakhubira=s father has filed a complaint against the PSO and refused to accept a payment offer of 50,000 riyals (about U.S.$400). The case received wide press coverage in Yemen.

One of Yemen=s most egregious and long-standing cases of wrongful incarceration remained unresolved in 1996. Mansur Rajah, an activist with the leftist National Democratic Front, had been arrested in July 1983 and charged with the murder of a man in his village in Ta`iz province. He was interrogated, reportedly under torture, for nine months, in order to compel him to release the names of other NDF activists. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in March 1984, a sentence that had been upheld on appeal but had not yet been ratified by the Presidential Council. Yemeni human rights activists considered him to have been framed; in any event his trial in March 1984 was patently unfair, and Amnesty International has long regarded him as a prisoner of conscience.

The Right to Monitor

There were two main organizations based in Yemen working on human rights issues. The Yemeni Organization for Human Rights (YOHR) describes itself as a 30,000-member nongovernmental monitoring organization. It was headed by Hamud al-Hitar, a judge who was a strong proponent of the rule of law and judicial autonomy. In the period since the civil war, the YOHR protested illegal detentions, press closures and physical attacks on intellectuals. However, apparently in response to government pressure, the YOHR lowered its profile considerably in 1996.

The Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Liberties and Human Rights was set up in February 1992. In its first annual report, in 1994, the YODLHR recorded civilian deaths and injuries in the civil war as well as detailed information on security officers accused of rights violations, cases of illegal detentions, and the names of civil servants illegally dismissed. Although President Salih had ordered it to cease functioning, and the Ministry of Social Affairs denied it a license, the YODLHR operated legally in 1996 on the basis of a fifteen-year license from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The organization had to close its Sana`a office for lack of funds, but maintained an office in Aden and, after dispatching lawyers in response to clashes in Mukalla (see above), established a branch there as well.

There was a parliamentary human rights committee. Although headed by Yahya Mansur Abu Usba, a member of the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party, the group was rendered ineffective by its large GPC/Islah majority.

Amnesty International conducted an official mission to Yemen in 1996. There was an ICRC representative resident in Yemen, and the ICRC had access to prisons.