Yemen Abandons Human Rights to Counter Terrorism

By Alireza Azizi, Yemen Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA

Yemeni security forces stand guard outside the state-security court in Sanaa during the trial of suspected Huthi rebels on January 17, 2010. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

The government authorities in Yemen are rolling back human rights gains over the years in the name of security.

Challenged by growing calls for secession in the south, and intermittent conflict with the Huthis movement in the north and the presence of al-Qa’ida in the country, the Yemeni government has increasingly resorted to repressive and illegal methods.

Yemeni government is under pressure from other governments, particularly the USA, Europe and the Gulf states, who want the Yemeni government to take tough action to combat al-Qa’ida and to prevent Yemen fracturing or imploding into a failed state. The international pressure on Yemen intensified after December 25 2009 when a Nigerian man, said to have been trained by al-Qa’ida in Yemen apparently tried to blow up a US airliner bounded for Detroit. The US government quickly expanded military and intelligence co-operation with the Yemeni authorities, and in early 2010 announced a $155 million security package for Yemen with $35 million earmarked for the country Special Operations Forces to carry out counter-terrorism operations. Yet there was little evidence of concern about the impact of security operations that might have on human rights.

Islamists militants have carried out suicide and other attacks in Yemen, and the government has a duty to protect people from such attacks and to bring to justice perpetrators. However, the main security fear for many Yemenis is to be caught up in the government’s sweeping responses to the challenges it faces in south and north. Despite government allegations, there appears to be no evidence linking the Huthis or the loose coalition of individuals and groups known as the Southern Movement to al-Qa’ida.

Hundreds if not thousands of people suspected of links to al-Qa’ida or armed Islamist groups have been arrested and subjected to a wide range of abuses, including enforced disappearances, prolonged detention without charge, torture and unfair trials.

In the conflict with the Huthis in the northern Sa’dah region, hundreds, possibility thousands, of civilians have been killed, many as a results of apparently indiscriminate attacks, and over a quarter of a million people have been forced to flee their home. In the south, security forces have allegedly targeted for killing people prominent in the Southern Movement and have killed or injured hundreds of protesters during peaceful demonstrations.


Time Running Out for Omar Khadr

Time is running out for Omar Khadr, his Military Commission trial will finally get underway on August 10th and it is likely to be completed within two weeks.

We don’t anticipate a very edifying spectacle. Khadr fired his hopelessly outclassed civilian defense attorneys last month and is refusing to participate any further in the proceedings. As he explained in a letter to the court:

“It is going to be the same thing with or without lawyers. It’s going to be a life sentence.”

It is hardly a surprise that after eight years of delay and prevarication, rule changes and procedural challenges, Khadr has no faith in the genuine independence of the military commission process. Few international observers do.

Omar Khadr was taken into US custody when he was 15 years old on 27 July 2002 in Afghanistan. On the right is a picture of him after being detained for eight years.

The case against Khadr is a weak one. There are no eyewitnesses to the primary

incident and the only real evidence against him are statements obtained from him under duress and a videotape of him apparently helping to plant an IED. It is not clear whether the tape is of a training exercise or an actual attack.

The judge in the case is still refusing to consider whether incriminating statements made by Khadr after his capture were obtained through torture – hardly a fanciful claim since his interrogator was actually convicted in a US court martial of abusing another detainee in the same facility.

Khadr’s remaining–military–attorney, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, has petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the propriety of the US government maintaining in essence a separate legal system for US non-citizens. US citizens charged with terrorist offenses are directed to the federal courts not military commissions. As Lt. Col. Jackson notes: “separate is always unequal.”

Finally, perhaps most egregious of all, Khadr is being tried as an adult despite the fact that he was only fifteen when the alleged offenses he is accused of occurred. Under the terms of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which the United States is a signatory, Khadr should properly be considered a child soldier.


Senate Hearing on Accountability

Senator Pat Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) told today’s Judiciary Committee hearing on “Getting to the Truth through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry” that he had received 65,000 emails and letters from members of the public supporting his call for a Commission to investigate human rights abuses in the War on Terror.

Senator Leahy added:

“Nothing has done more to damage America’s place in the world than the revelation that this nation stretched the law and bounds of executive power to authorize torture.”

Senator Leahy’s call for a Commission of Inquiry received strong support from Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) and Russ Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin). Senator Feingold went further also calling for prosecutions were crimes had occurred and expressing the hope that a Commission of Inquiry would not consider offering immunity in return for testimony. Senators Arlen Specter (Republican, Pennsylvania), Ted Kaufman (Democrat, Delaware) and John Cornyn (Republican, Texas) were also in attendance.

One of those invited to testify at the hearing was former United Nations Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who last month had worked with the coalition of human rights organizations calling for the establishment of a non-partisan commission of eminent persons to investigate the conduct of the Bush administration in this area. AIUSA has played a leading role in the coalition. Ambassador Pickering provided powerful testimony concerning the damage the Bush administration’s policies had done to America’s standing around the world.

Other news comes from the Senate Armed Services Committee where Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) is calling for the Department of Justice to open an independent investigation into the use of torture and other coercive techniques by military personnel and other government agents.

The Armed Services Committee is close to releasing a substantially updated version of its December 2008 bipartisan report on the “Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody”, expanded to include newly declassified material. The first version of this report identified a chain of culpability leading up to the highest levels of the Bush administration. With hard facts still in short supply we are confident that the release of this updated report will further drive calls for accountability.

Transparency Still an Unfulfilled Promise by President Obama

The Obama Administration has already taken several laudable steps to separate itself from illegal policies and practices of its predecessor, and I applaud them for it.  I’m glad Attorney General Holder released some of the shocking legal memoranda prepared by the Bush Office of Legal Counsel, which authorized blatantly unlawful and unconstitutional acts by the executive branch.  But I choked a bit on Mr. Holder’s statement that “Americans deserve a government that operates with transparency and openness.”  I agree wholeheartedly, but I find this sentiment glaringly at odds with some of the Justice Department’s own recent actions.

In several pending court cases that began before President Obama took office, summarized by blogger Glenn Greenwald, among others, the Obama Justice Department has recently taken positions that appear to embrace the Bush Justice Department’s expansive view of Presidential power.  For example, in a lawsuit brought against the Jeppesen company, a Boeing subsidiary, by five alleged victims of “extraordinary rendition,” the Obama administration invoked the “state secrets” doctrine to keep certain documents out of the hands of the plaintiffs, with the apparent aim of depriving them of their day in court.  In this and other recent cases where Eric Holder’s Justice Department has taken similar positions, no administration official has bothered to offer any explanation for doing so.  So much for transparency and openness!  Yet these actions cry out for an explanation because, on their face, they are so conspicuously at odds with President Obama’s and the Attorney General’s own declared values and promises.

It’s beginning to appear that what we have is a President who disagrees with many of the specific policies and practices of his predecessor but who reserves the right to adopt them himself — or other, possibly equally illegal practices — if he feels the need in the future.  This should serve as another sad reminder of the need to ensure that honoring our obligations under domestic and international law is not left up to the whim of whoever happens to be our President at any given time.  A good first step would be a thorough investigation by an impartial panel of experts into all US government counterterrorism practices since 9/11, in a manner that enables criminal prosecutions to be undertaken where warranted.  Only by demonstrating that lawlessness has serious consequences can we ensure that whether we have a government that obeys the law does not remain a matter of Presidential preference.

Both Illegal and Dumb

This weekend saw the publication of two powerful opinion pieces on the futility of using torture as an interrogation tool.  Writing in The (London) Times on Friday General Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the UK Defense Staff, argued that the use of torture was “both illegal and dumb.” Drawing on Britain’s bitter experience using coercive interrogation tactics in Northern Ireland, Lord Guthrie continued:

“Western use of torture to counter terror has been a propaganda coup for al-Qaeda and a recruiting sergeant for its global jihad. Our hypocrisy has radicalised our enemies and corroded the power we base on our proclaimed values. We save more lives in the long term by rejecting torture than we do by perpetrating it.”

In addition to serving successively in two of Britain’s most senior military posts, Lord Guthrie spent almost a decade as an officer in Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) during which period he served in Aden, the Gulf, Malaysia and East Africa. The SAS fulfils the same counterterrorist role as America’s Delta Force. Lord Guthrie also served in Northern Ireland with the Welsh Guards. The full article (Torture uses the body against the soul) can be accessed at

On Sunday the News in Review section of The New York Times featured an article by Ambassador Donald P. Gregg, a thirty year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who served as the National Security Adviser to Vice-President George H. W. Bush during the Reagan administration.

Ambassador Gregg had been responsible for intelligence operations in ten Vietnamese provinces between 1971-72 and he described how his South Vietnamese counterpart had routinely tortured prisoners, producing a great deal of information much of which proved to be false.  By contrast Ambassador Gregg’s team employed “more humane methods” and generated more accurate intelligence.  He concludes:

“The key to successful interrogation is for the interrogator — even as he controls the situation — to recognize a prisoner’s humanity, to understand his culture, background and language. Torture makes this impossible.”

Ambassador Gregg’s article (Speaking with the Enemy) can be accessed at

It is fashionable to portray calls for a return to due process, American values and human rights as a liberal cause. In reality, as the contributions from Lord Guthrie and Ambassador Gregg demonstrate, it is a cause that attracts a great deal of support from among professional military, law enforcement and intelligence personnel because they know effective counterterrorism is perfectly compatible with democratic principles.

Gaza By The Numbers

A snapshot of Gaza by the numbers:

Humanitarian Assistance

  • Movement in and out of Gaza is all but impossible and supplies of food, water, sewage treatment, basic health care have been drastically affected by the blockade of aid. Food prices are rising and wheat, flour, baby milk, and rose 34%, 30%, and 20.5% respectively during the period May-June 2007 alone.
  • Prior to the blockade (implemented after Hamas took over total adminstration over Gaza in June 2007), around 250 trucks carrying aid entered Gaza each day.
  • As of March 2008, that number was reduced to 45.
  • According to UN figures reported in the Guardian, that number dropped to just 5 in December.
  • Most recently, the Israeli government prevented a Libyan ship carrying 3000 tons of aid from entering Gaza.

Poverty and Dependency on Food Aid

  • Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2008: 80%
  • Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2006: 63%
  • In 2007, households were spending 62% of their income on food.
  • In 2004, households were spending 37% of their income on food.
  • As of March 2008, there were over 1.1 million people—three quarters of Gaza—who are dependent on food aid. In less than ten years, the numbers of families who depending on UNRWA food aid has increased ten-fold


  • In June 2005, there were 3,900 factories in Gaza employing 35,000 people.
  • In December 2007, there were just 195, employing only 1,700.
  • Unemployment is close to 40%.
  • 40,000 agriculture works who depend on cash crops now have no income.
  • In September 2000, 24,000 Gazans crossed into Israel to seek cheap labor. Now that number is zero.

Schools, Electricity, Medical Supplies

  • In January 2008, UNICEF reported that schools in Gaza had been cancelling classes that required high energy consumption like IT, science lab, and extra-curricular classes.
  • Hospitals cannot generate electricity to keep lifesaving equipment working or to generate oxygen, while 40-50 million liters of sewage continues to pour into the sea daily.
  • Hospitals are currently experiencing power cuts lasting for 8-12 hours a day.
  • There is currently a 60-70 percent shortage reported in the diesel required for hospital power generators.
  • According to the World Health Organization, the proportion of patients given permits to exit Gaza for medical care dropped from 89.3% in January 2007 to 64.3% in December 2007.
  • Many of those who are given permits are blocked at the crossing itself. In October 2007 alone, the WHO confirmed that 20 patients died because they were denied access to refereal services. Five of these deaths were children.

In speaking about the current wave of violence, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev pledged that Israel will “destroy completely” the “terrorist gang.”

But the facts show that much more than a “terrorist gang” is being destroyed in Gaza.

(Unless otherwise indicated, all facts in this post are from the report “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian implosion” co-authored by Amnesty International, Oxfam, Medcins de Monde UK, CAFOD, Save the Children UK, TroCAIRE, CARE, and Christian Aid).

Terror vs. Terror

“‘In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to respect a sustainable and durable cease-fire,’ a White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, told reporters in Texas. ‘Hamas has once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization.'” From “Gaza Toll Passes 350 in 3rd Day of Israel Strikes” in the New York Times.

Again and again we see states try to justify murder with murder, torture with torture, barbarism with barbarism, genocide with genocide.

The words “terror,” “terrorism” and “terrorist” obscure this hypocrisy. What is it that states want to counter by “countering terrorism?” The killing, injuring and frightening of civilians. How are states going to do it? By killing, injuring and frightening civilians? Come on.

The human rights community should drop the “terror” framework. There are individuals, armed groups, unarmed groups, companies, states and groups of states. Some of these terrorize civilians. Some don’t. Let’s stop confusing “who” with “what.”

Or at least let’s insist on using the word “terrorist” to describe all who qualify.