Saturday, November 21, 2020

Saudi leaders hide their grave human rights abuses behind the G20


It’s outrageous, to say the least, hearing the silence of states virtually attending the G20 Saudi Arabia & saying no word about the kingdom’s gross rights violations at home & in Yemen.
No state with any sense of decency, who respects human rights can attend #G20 without strongly demanding an end to the kingdom’s rights abuses. All parties to the conflict in Yemen, including the Houthi armed group, have blood on their hands. Mounting evidence shows how Saudi Arabia committed rights abuses, some of which amount to war crimes enabled by billions-$-worth weapons bought from the US, the UK, France & others.

What I find appaling is the double-standard from some western states who preach about their love for human rights at home & elsewhere, & stay silent when their filthy rich allies commit rights abuses.
No matter how clear world leaders’ silence is, the fact is that Saudi Arabia & its allies, and the Houthi armed group have created the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. May the images of starving Yemeni children haunt them in their dreams! 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Yemen: Jailed Journalists Face Abuse, Death Penalty

Tawfiq al-Mansouri's mother, daughter, and wife hold up a photo of him during a demonstration on October 1, 2020. Al-Mansouri is one of four imprisoned Yemeni journalists currently facing the death penalty. © 2020 Mohammed Al-Emmad

Published first in: Human Rights Watch

Houthi Authorities Should Free 4 Reporters Wrongfully Convicted 

(Beirut) – Four journalists arbitrarily detained by Houthi authorities in Yemen since 2015 face the death penalty and receive inadequate medical care, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 11, 2020, the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in Sanaa sentenced the four Yemeni journalists to death after an unfair trial on politically motivated charges of treason and spying for foreign states because of their work as journalists. The Houthi authorities should immediately quash the death sentences and unconditionally release the journalists.

Houthi authorities arrested the four journalists – Abdul Khaleq Amran, Akram Al-Walidi, Hareth Humaid, and Tawfiq Al-Mansouri – along with five other journalists during a June 9, 2015, raid on a hotel room in Sanaa, where they were working because it was one of the few locations in the city with an internet connection and electricity, family members told Human Rights Watch by phone. Throughout their detention, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the journalists have had only irregular and restricted family visits, lack of access to legal assistance, and inadequate medical care. On October 15, the Houthis released five of the journalists as part of a prisoner exchange deal with the internationally recognized government of Yemen, but refused to include the four with death sentences.

“Houthi authorities are using compromised courts to punish journalists for doing their job, adding to the armed group’s bleak record of abuses,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These journalists should never have been arrested in the first place, much less face the death penalty.”

The Houthi armed group has in recent years consolidated its hold on Sanaa, the country’s capital, including on the judiciary. The United Nations Group of Eminent Experts for Yemen has reported that the Houthi group has used the Specialized Criminal Courts in Sanaa “as an instrument to suppress dissent, intimidate political opponents and/or develop political capital to be used in negotiations.”

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and finality.

Prior to the 2015 arrests, the journalists worked for various local media outlets reporting on abuses by the Houthi armed group, which has controlled Sanaa and much of Yemen’s northwest since September 2014. Amran was the editor-in-chief of the al-Islah news website, affiliated with the Islah political party, a key adversary of the Houthis. Al-Walidi worked for news website and the state-funded news agency SABA. Humaid was the news editor at Yemen Revolution Press reporting on Houthi human rights abuses. Al-Mansouri worked for Yemen Revolution Press as a graphic designer.

Al-Mansouri’s brother said that the Houthi authorities restricted access to family members and lawyers during the trial and afterward. “The Houthi authorities never allowed us to visit Tawfiq,” he said. “Every three or four months, the Houthi authorities allowed Tawfiq to call us for five minutes and [he] would ask us to send him money but half of it would be taken by the prison guards.… Last time he called was a month ago, for only five minutes. The Houthi authorities did not allow lawyers to speak to Tawfiq and the other detainees facing executions. The lawyer was able to speak to them only once inside the courtroom in the presence of the judge and other Houthi security officers.”

Family members also described lack of access to adequate medical care. Al-Walidi’s sister said of her most recent visit: “The last I saw him, his face looked very pale. A month ago, he called us briefly and his voice was tired. Akram has chronic digestive problems and suffers from high blood pressure. He [does] not receive medical care inside the prison, but rather that we, his family, send him medicine when the Houthi authorities allow us.”

Humaid’s sister also expressed her family’s concerns over his medical condition: “The Houthi authorities do not give us any information about the case of my brother…. Hareth has been suffering loss of vision, dryness in his eyes, and constant migraines. When he calls us, he asks for money or for us to send him medicine. In 2019, the Houthi authorities allowed Hareth to go once to an eye treatment clinic and we covered all the financial expenses.”

None of the families knew where the four were held.

Family members also consistently expressed serious concerns that the Houthi authorities would execute the four soon, especially after they were not included in the prisoner exchange. Humaid’s sister said, “In 2018, my father died without saying goodbye to Hareth. For the sake of my ill mother, we hope Hareth will be released soon, but we are worried that the death sentence will be carried out soon.”

Human Rights Watch also spoke with three of the journalists included in the prisoner exchange: Hisham Ahmed Tarmoom, 30, Haitham Abdulrahman Al-Shihab, 29, and Essam Amin Balgheeth, 30.

They said that the Specialized Criminal Court tried them alongside the four currently on death row on similar charges. But the court eventually ordered their release along with two other prisoners – Hisham Abdulmalik Al-Yousefi and Hassan Abdullah Annab – later included in the prisoner exchange. None knew why the court had ordered their release while sentencing the four to death.

Despite the release order, the Houthi authorities continued to detain the five without explanation until the September deal with the Yemeni government, when they were released in exchange for government-held prisoners. Unlawfully holding people to use for a prisoner exchange is a form of hostage-taking, which is a war crime.

The three said that Annab and al-Yousefi were unable to speak to Human Rights Watch because they suffered from physical and psychological problems due to torture and ill-treatment in detention.

“In the beginning of our detention, Houthi forces threatened us, all the journalists, several times that they would use us as human shields and leave us in weaponry storage, so the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes would hit the place and kill us,” Tarmoon said. “Psychologically, that was devastating. Inside the prison, the Houthi officers used to emotionally abuse us, calling us names and accusing us repeatedly of being criminals. But our only fault was that we were working as journalists, reporting on what was happening on the ground.”

Al-Shihab said that he believes he developed diabetes in prison due to the poor conditions. Balgheeth said that he could only obtain medical treatment after his condition worsened and after he repeatedly pleaded with the guards. “I suffer from numerous diseases, [including] colon disease, a peptic ulcer, pain in my bones, and asthma,” he said. “I speak now while having a pain in my chest from the asthma, which I developed after the harsh detention conditions…. The cell we were kept in most of the time was 3x2 meters. We were 10 people inside that cell. The toilet was inside the room [and] the toilet and the room were constantly filthy. The place was dusty all the time.”

“One time I had an unbearable pain in a sensitive area of my body. After much pleading, the guards allowed me to see a doctor at my own expense. However, the guards did not allow me to follow through with the medical instructions the doctor suggested, such as having clean clothes and staying in well-ventilated place,” Balgheeth said.

The three journalists said they struggled to resume their lives in Marib governorate after five years of detention and abuse. “We received inadequate support [from the recognized Yemeni government] after our release,” Balgheeth said. “We were shocked to find out the devastating humanitarian situation around us…. I was engaged before I was detained, but less than a year ago my fiancée could not wait more for me and she got married to someone else. That was devastating.”

“The Houthi authorities should immediately impose a moratorium on the death penalty and improve detention conditions in the facilities under their control,” Nasser said. “For conditions to really improve they need to provide accountability and compensation for abuses by their forces.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Webinar: A Cascade of Crises: Yemen


This was a webinar part of the "Humanitarian Congress Berlin", to discuss the humanitarian situation in Yemen, organized by Médecins Du Monde, the German Red Cross, the Berlin Chamber of Physicians, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam and Greenpeace.

I was the moderator and the panelists were:

Sadam Al-Adwar, Co-founder & Executive Director, Musaala For Human Rights, Marib, Yemen

Sami Yahya al-Hajj, Physician, Sana’a Yemen

Majed Taleb, Deputy Coordinator, Doctors of the World org, Sana’a, Yemen

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

War and COVID-19 in Yemen

Victims of Covid-19 are buried in Taizz, Yemen, June 24, 2020. © 2020 REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

After Yemen’s 2011 uprising broke out, the country went through a series of political upheavals and cycles of violence that tore the country apart, including the start of a full-scale civil war in 2014 and the Saudi- and UAE-led intervention in 2015.

In a context where civilians have been deliberately attacked by all sides, COVID-19 has added a new layer to the unspeakable suffering for millions of civilians in Yemen, whilst Europe has reacted with development aid but has thus far failed to support need for accountability in the conflict.

The War

The Houthi armed group, in alliance with forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, militarily seized Yemen’s capital in September 2014, ousting President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, leading a coalition of nine Arab states with military support from the United States, began an aerial bombardment campaign against the Houthi–Saleh forces to support Hadi’s government.

Along with the US, the UK, France and other Western states have continued to sell weapons to the Saudis and other coalition members. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia in 2015. Saudi Arabia said it was acting in defence of Yemen’s legitimate government. Six years on, the coalition has not achieved its goal of restoring Hadi to power.

Meanwhile, the Houthi armed group has consolidated its hold on Sanaa and much of the northern highlands, particularly after Houthi forces assassinated their previous ally, former president Saleh, in December 2017.

Today, there are more than 30 fronts across Yemen involving fighting by various domestic armed groups, in addition to the coalition’s airstrikes. Both sides to the conflict have been responsible for unlawful attacks that harmed civilians, many of them carried out with disregard for civilian life, and that may amount to war crimes.

Saudi Arabia claimed in 2015 that its military operation would be “limited in nature, and designed to protect the people [of Yemen]”. But the Yemeni group Mwatana has reported that almost a third of all airstrikes carried out by the coalition hit civilian sites such as homes, hospitals, schools, weddings, farms, food stores and water wells, killing and wounding more than 18,400 civilians and counting. The actual numbers of civilian casualties is most likely higher because data collection has been extremely difficult.

The Saudi-led coalition is not the only party responsible for civilian deaths and injuries. Houthi forces have used banned antipersonnel landmines in many parts of Yemen, fired artillery indiscriminately into cities such as Taizz and Hodeidah, killing and wounding civilians, assassinated dissidents and launched indiscriminate ballistic missiles at civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.

There are no clear estimates of the number of civilian casualties from Houthi attacks because, again, data collection has been extremely difficult. Killings and other abuses committed by Houthi forces may also constitute war crimes.

The Pandemic

As the Yemeni civilian population is already suffering in an enormous man-made humanitarian crisis, the COVID-19 crisis has added a new stress to a health system which has already been shattered by war. Under-resourced and buffeted by years of conflict, it is inadequately prepared to care for COVID-19 patients and contain the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, the pandemic has been only one of Yemenis’ many health concerns.

Prior to COVID-19, several other notable disease outbreaks including cholera, diphtheria, measles and dengue fever were reported in Yemen. Cholera alone has affected nearly every Yemeni family in some way, with almost two million suspected cases since 2016.

Yet, more than half of Yemen’s health facilities are closed or partially functioning. Since 2015, parties to the conflict have targeted not only medical facilities but also medical personnel, as health workers have been threatened, injured, abducted, detained and killed.

Consequently, many medical professionals have fled Yemen, further damaging the healthcare response. The Houthis have severely hampered and diverted international aid in areas under their control. Parties to the conflict have also possibly used starvation as a weapon of war, further weakening Yemenis’ health. In 2017, the UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien called Yemen the greatest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

In light of these serial abuses, the pandemic adds a new layer of misery for Yemenis whose mental and physical health and access to healthcare infrastructure has already been severely depleted. The country’s first confirmed case were recorded on 10 April 2020.

Despite that the country’s limited testing capacity, as of 26 September the number of confirmed cases in Yemen had reached 2,034, with 588 associated deaths. It is impossible to know the actual numbers.

The Houthi authorities in Yemen’s north were accused of hiding the real impact of COVID-19 in areas under their control. UN officials have raised concerns that the coronavirus could infect nearly 16 million people in Yemen, 55 per cent of the population, based on epidemiological projections.

Saudi Arabia announced in April that the coalition would begin a unilateral ceasefire following the call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in March for a global ceasefire to advance peace and combat the pandemic. Many humanitarian and human rights groups welcomed the move and thought there was a window to begin a process to end the suffering of millions of civilians in Yemen. Hostilities nonetheless continued.

The Urgent Need for Accountability

While the European Union continues its humanitarian aid to Yemen, €484 million since 2015, it has made limited efforts to suspend arms sales to the coalition, despite a legally binding EU Common Position stating that arms exports to countries that “use the military technology or equipment [...] aggressively against another country" should not be granted an export license.

Following the Saudi government’s killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, the European Parliament passed resolutions calling for an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. It also urged EU member states not to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, the UAE “and any member of the international coalition”, or to the government of Yemen and other parties.

While some EU states have halted or restricted exports of military equipment to the coalition – due to international humanitarian law and human rights concerns – others have continued with supplies. US State Department officials have warned that US officials could risk war crimes for continuing to approve arms sales, given the Saudi-led coalition’s pattern of unlawful attacks in Yemen over the course of years.

In December 2019, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, supported by five nongovernmental groups, urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor to investigate the role of executives of European arms companies and licensing officials in violation of international humanitarian law that could amount to war crimes in Yemen.

In June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Secretary General removed the Saudi-led coalition from his “list of shame” (a list made for countries responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict) despite continued grave violations against children in Yemen.

The following month, the UK announced that it would resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite documented evidence of continuing laws-of-war violations by the coalition. The same goes for other states, including the US, France, Canada and Spain. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the two largest customers of the European arms industry.

The atrocities committed cannot be swept under the rug, but the unwillingness of states involved in the conflict to acknowledge the gross human rights abuses and international humanitarian violations committed in Yemen makes it difficult to believe that the victims will one day find justice and redress.

As most of the world is preoccupied with the pandemic in their own countries, the disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen has received even less attention. However, the work of local and international human rights groups remains robust and vital – sending a message to not give up – providing lifesaving support to Yemen’s suffering population while documenting abuses and violations that will prove vital for any form of accountability and reconciliation in the war torn country.

This article was first published in Istituto Affari Internazionali

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Is the world abandoning Yemen? | The Stream

A tragedy is unfolding in Yemen as humanitarian needs continue to grow while aid agencies are running out of money to fund life-saving assistance. I co-discussed the humanitarian catastrophe on Al Jazeera English, yesterday.