In Yemen’s secret prisons, torturers literally grill prisoners over flames, and US interrogates
Horrific abuses by UAE torturers at a secret detention network in southern Yemen include spinning captives in a circle of fire, an AP investigation has found
Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaeda militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Senior American defence officials acknowledged Wednesday that US forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.
The AP documented at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces created and trained by the Gulf nation, drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers and Yemeni military officials. All are either hidden or off limits to Yemen’s government, which has been getting Emirati help in its civil war with rebels over the last two years.
The secret prisons are inside military bases, ports, an airport, private villas and even a nightclub. Some detainees have been flown to an Emirati base across the Red Sea in Eritrea, according to Yemen Interior Minister Hussein Arab and others.
Several US defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the topic, said that American forces do participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies. They said US senior military leaders were aware of allegations of torture at the prisons in Yemen, looked into them, but were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when U.S. forces were present.
“We always adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional conduct,” said chief Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White when presented with AP’s findings. “We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights.”
In a statement, the UAE’s government denied the allegations.
“There are no secret detention centres and no torture of prisoners is done during interrogations.”
Inside war-torn Yemen, however, lawyers and families say nearly 2,000 men have disappeared into the clandestine prisons, a number so high that it has triggered near-weekly protests among families seeking information about missing sons, brothers and fathers.
None of the dozens of interviewees contended that American interrogators were involved in the actual abuses. Nevertheless, obtaining intelligence that may have been extracted by torture inflicted by another party would violate the International Convention Against Torture and could qualify as war crimes, said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University who served as special counsel to the Defense Department until last year
At one main detention complex at Riyan airport in the southern city of Mukalla, former inmates described being crammed into shipping containers smeared with faeces and blindfolded for weeks on end. They said they were beaten, trussed up on the “grill,” and sexually assaulted. According to a member of the Hadramawt Elite, a Yemeni security force set up by the UAE, American forces were at times only metres away. He requested anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the matter.
“We could hear the screams,” said a former detainee held for six months at Riyan airport. “The entire place is gripped by fear. Almost everyone is sick, the rest are near death. Anyone who complains heads directly to the torture chamber.” He was flogged with wires, part of the frequent beatings inflicted by guards against all the detainees. He also said he was inside a metal shipping container when the guards lit a fire underneath to fill it with smoke.
Like other ex-detainees, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested again. He was interviewed in person in Yemen after his release from detention.
Interviews were conducted with 10 former prisoners, as well as a dozen officials in the Yemeni government, military and security services and nearly 20 relatives of detainees. The chief of Riyan prison, who is well known among families and lawyers as Emirati, did not reply to requests for comment.
Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said the abuses “show that the US hasn’t learned the lesson that cooperating with forces that are torturing detainees and ripping families apart is not an effective way to fight extremist groups.” Human Rights Watch issued a report Thursday documenting torture and forced disappearances at the UAE-run prisons and calling on the Emirates to protect detainees’ rights.
Amnesty International called for a UN-led investigation “into the UAE’s and other parties’ role in setting up this horrific network of torture” and into allegations the US interrogated detainees or received information possibly obtained from torture. “It would be a stretch to believe the US did not know or could not have known that there was a real risk of torture,” said Amnesty’s director of research in the Middle East, Lynn Maalouf.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has praised the UAE as “Little Sparta” for its outsized role in fighting against al-Qaeda.
US forces send questions to the Emirati forces holding the detainees, which then send files and videos with answers, said Yemeni Brigadier-General Farag Salem al-Bahsani, commander of the Mukalla-based 2nd Military District, which American officials confirmed. He also said the United States handed authorities a list of most wanted men, including many who were later arrested.
Al-Bahsani denied detainees were handed over to the Americans and said reports of torture are “exaggerated.”
The network of prisons echoes the secret detention facilities set up by the CIA to interrogate terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama disbanded the so-called “black sites.” The UAE network in war-torn Yemen was set up during the Obama administration and continues operating to this day.
One detaineesaid he was subject to constant beatings by his Yemeni handlers but was interrogated only once.
“I would die and go to hell rather than go back to this prison,” he said. “They wouldn’t treat animals this way. If it was bin Laden, they wouldn’t do this.”