Yemenis Are Being Disappeared, Tortured, Then Killed in Unofficial Prisons

"It's happening virtually all the time. It's become as simple for them as drinking a glass of water."
houthi rebels
Houthi rebels and their supporters take part in a demonstration marking al-Quds Day. Photo: Hani Al-Ansi / dpa / Alamy Live News

Hundreds of Yemenis have been tortured, disappeared and arbitrarily detained in secret detention centers across the country in recent years, with abusers ripping their victims' fingernails out, administering electric shocks and burning their genitals.

The horrifying scale of the abuse in the country's unofficial detention centers has been detailed in a comprehensive new report by Yemeni human rights group Mwatana Tuesday. It found that cases of torture and forced disappearances have worsened, as all parties involved the prolonged conflict have routinely engaged in abuses in recent years.


"The longer the armed conflict has continued, the more armed groups have gotten involved in these abuses," Osamah Alfakih, Mwatana’s advocacy director, told VICE News. "It’s continuous — it’s happening virtually all the time by all parties to the conflict. It’s become as simple for them as drinking a glass of water."

Since April 2020, the group’s researchers have documented more than 1,600 cases of arbitrary detentions, 770 forced disappearances, 344 cases of torture and at least 66 deaths in unofficial detention centers. The cases, which were verified in more than 2,500 interviews with former detainees, witnesses and relatives of the victims took place in 11 squalid “unofficial detention centers” across the country, where it was virtually impossible for relatives or monitors to visit detainees.

“The conditions in the official detention centers are already appalling, so there are huge concerns about these unofficial facilities,” he said. “They turn the fears of families into nightmares.”

READ: Yemen was already facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Then coronavirus hit

Torture techniques documented by the group included electrocution, removing fingernails and toenails, severe beatings with hammer or wire, burning genitals, rape threats, forcing detainees to drink urine, or hanging them from the ceiling for prolonged periods.

The report showed that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who seized much of the north of the country in 2014, were responsible for most of the abuses, including more than 350 forced disappearances, 138 incidents of torture, and 27 deaths in detention.


Alfakih said the Houthis were responsible for most of the abuses in the early days of the conflict. But as the war had continued, other players had increasingly operated in the same way.

READ: Desperate families in Yemen are resorting to child marriage and forced labor as coronavirus spreads

Forces backed by the United Arab Emirate, including the Southern Transitional Council, which declared self rule in the south in April, had carried out 327 disappearances, 141 cases of torture, and were responsible for 25 deaths in detention. Meanwhile, forces loyal to the internationally recognized government were responsible for at least 65 cases of torture and over two dozen deaths in detention centers.

The report found the groups used the brutal methods as a method of domination, spreading terror among society. “The scale and severity of abuse… has had significant societal impact,” it said.

Alfakih said that torture had been used by Yemeni security forces prior to the conflict, but the practice had become much more widespread as the war had continued.

READ: Yemen is dealing with war, famine, displacement — and now coronavirus

Amid the misery of the country’s conflict — which has killed more than 100,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster — there was no effective deterrent to stop the warring parties carrying out abuses.

“Unfortunately, this is something Yemenis have suffered for a very long time. But it’s getting worse,” said Alfakih. “They feel they can do this with impunity. I’m sure, if the international community sent a strong message to all parties to the conflict that they had to respect human rights, they would refrain from what they’re doing.”