Yemenis protest the detention of their family members in Sana'a. Credit: AFP.

Prisoners in Yemen have routinely suffered abuses such as the deprivation of food and water, beatings, electrocutions, being hung upside down for hours and even sexual torture.

The scale of abuse in unofficial detention centres and prisons has now been revealed in a report, which shows how extrajudicial detentions and killings have rocketed during the five-year-long conflict, The Guardian reported.

Between May 2016 and April 2020, Mwatana, a leading Yemeni human rights group, documented 1,605 cases of arbitrary detention, 770 cases of enforced disappearance, and 344 cases of torture carried out by all of Yemen’s warring parties, according to research published this week.

The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels were responsible for the majority of cases, with 904 of the arbitrary or abusive detentions, 353 of enforced disappearance, 138 of torture and 27 deaths in detention, The Guardian reported.

Deprivation of food and water, beatings and electrocutions were common practices in all 11 unofficial centres under investigation, Mwatana said.

Field visits, as well as thousands of interviews with former detainees, witnesses, relatives and lawyers, suggested that UAE forces and affiliated armed groups were responsible for some of the most shocking treatment of prisoners, including being hung upside down for hours and sexual torture such as the burning of genitals, The Guardian reported.

A total of 419 cases of arbitrary or abusive detentions, 327 enforced disappearances, 141 torture allegations and 25 deaths in detention were attributed to the UAE and allied forces, including anti-Houthi militias such as the Security Belt.

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government, including the Islah party, were responsible for 282 detentions, 90 disappearances, 65 cases of torture and 14 deaths in detention, The Guardian reported.

While conditions in official prisons and detention centres in Yemen are also appalling, there is particular concern over unofficial sites, said Osamah Alfakih, Mwatana’s advocacy director.

“In these unofficial centres, the use of which has greatly expanded during Yemen’s war, monitors and families very rarely have access to detainees,” he said.

“The number of deaths in detention is huge and reflects clearly the disrespectful attitude towards human rights all parties to the conflict have.”

The highest number of detentions was documented at the Houthi-run Security and Intelligence Agency in Sana’a, formerly Yemen’s Political Security Agency, where former detainees told Mwatana people were subjected to torture including nail removal, severe beatings and electric shocks, The Guardian reported.

At the 7 October prison in Abyan, controlled by the Security Belt, detainees faced some of the worst conditions outlined in the report, including a lack of food and water, being forced to drink urine, beatings with hammers, stress positions and sexual torture. Witnesses said detainees’ bodies were dumped in the yard of a nearby hospital.

As Covid-19 ravages Yemen’s already decimated healthcare system, Mwatana is calling on all parties to release extrajudicial prisoners at risk of catching the virus in detention.

“The impunity with which the warring parties act is a huge problem,” Alfakih said. “Coronavirus has turned this situation into even more of a nightmare for families and detainees.”

According to The Independent, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the exiled Yemeni government’s main allies in its fight to regain control of the country from Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran.

Since last year the UAE has also backed a militia known as the Southern Transitional Council, which seeks renewed independence for southern Yemen, and funded and trained various other local security forces which bypass the central Yemeni government.

Meanwhile, the Arab coalition is backed by several western partners, including the UK and US, which also sell Abu Dhabi and Riyadh weapons.

According to Amnesty International, the Emirates is facilitating the torture, violence and disappearances in southern Yemen’s secretive prisons.

Reports in the Associated Press have also revealed that several activists, journalists and members of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood have been detained after terror-related accusations.