Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report today highlighting abuses by Saudi Arabia and the forces it supports in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, specifically in the eastern province of Al-Mahrah, which shares a border with Oman. The report, released a day before the fifth-anniversary of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, traces the serious abuses since June last year, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and the illegal transfer of detainees to the Kingdom.
"Saudi forces and their Yemeni allies' serious abuses against local Mahrah residents is another horror to add to the list of the Saudi-led coalition's unlawful conduct in Yemen," said Michael Page, HRW's deputy Middle East director. "Saudi Arabia is severely harming its reputation with Yemenis when it carries out these abusive practices and holds no one accountable for them."
The province, which is the second largest and least populated in Yemen, has largely escaped much of the conflict but witnessed the arrival of Saudi troops back in December 2017 when they seized the airport in the provincial capital, Al-Ghaydah. Locals perceive the Saudis as a foreign occupation force and some protest movements fear that they intend to annex the province in order to run a pipeline to the Arabian Sea and shift from their current dependence on the Strait of Hormuz for oil exports. The Saudis have also taken control of the port of Nishtun.
HRW said that it interviewed four former Yemeni detainees, two family members of detainees and four friends of detainees, as well as seven Yemeni activists, five journalists, four officials with the country's internationally-recognised government and a Houthi official about recent events in Al-Mahrah. They documented cases of 16 people who were detained arbitrarily in the province between June last year and last month, and at least five were transferred illegally to Saudi territory. Many of the detainees' family members have no information as to their whereabouts or fate.
One former detainee, Yemeni journalist Bassem, said that he was held at an informal detention centre at Al-Ghaydah airport. He alleges that his captors, with Saudi backing, tortured him with electric shocks and threatened to imprison him in the Kingdom. "The Saudi and Yemeni security men forced me to sign a pledge not to work as a journalist in Al-Mahrah and not to communicate with 'Iran-allied' Shia Hezbollah, Qatar or Oman," he explained. "I realised that I was in a prison run by the Saudi army in Al-Ghaydah Airport and I heard a man scream in pain under torture in the next room. After a few days, they moved me to another prison in an unknown military base. In this prison, no jailer was Yemeni. No one. Zero. They all spoke with Saudi dialects."
The Saudis have sought to justify their presence in Yemen by claiming that they are fighting Al-Qaeda and preventing the smuggling of arms from Iran via Oman to the Houthi movement in the north. However, Muscat, which chose not to take part in the Saudi-led coalition, has denied that its territory is used for arms smuggling.
Last year, the Southern National Salvation Council (SNSC) resistance movement was established. It opposes all foreign military presence in Yemen. Sheikh Ali Al-Harizi, a tribal leader of the resistance in Al-Mahrah, issued a call recently for armed struggle against the Saudi forces, following peaceful sit-in protests that were met with violence. It is unclear to what extent the SNSC is working in co-operation with the Sanaa-based National Salvation Government (NSG) which is Houthi-affiliated, although some sources allege that Al-Harizi has pledged allegiance to the NSG.
The HRW report urged the Saudis to abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law, demanding that they must treat people taken into custody humanely. If they detain someone on reasonable grounds, the report recommends that they transfer the accused to the custody of the Yemeni government for investigation and prosecution.