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Yemen: Provide Whereabouts of ‘Disappeared’ Activist

THE LEVANT –  Yemeni authorities should urgently provide information on the whereabouts of a forcibly disappeared southern movement activist, Human Rights Watch said today, following a letter to the interior minister on September 17, 2014, which received no response. The authorities should provide Khaled al-Junaidi, 42, immediate access to his lawyer and family members.

On August 31, apparent members of Yemen’s Special Security Forces (formerly known as Central Security Forces) seized al-Junaidi in the southern port city of Aden, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Local authorities have indicated that al-Junaidi is in custody, but have refused to tell his family where he is being held and in what conditions.  The current authorities will remain in office until a new government is formed within the next month, following an agreement reached on September 21 between President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia resistance group from northern Yemen.

“There’s strong evidence that Yemeni security forces detained Khaled al-Junaidi,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “So it’s extremely worrisome that the Yemeni authorities have yet to explain why or let al-Junaidi’s family know where he’s being held.”

At 11:30 p.m. on August 31, al-Junaidi went to fill the tank of his Nissan Pathfinder at the Yemen Oilgas station on Arwa Street in Crater, Aden. As he was getting back into his car, two witnesses said, they saw an armored pickup truck with a mounted 12.7 mm heavy machine gun pull up in front. Five or six armed men got out, the witnesses said, grabbed al-Junaidi, and hoisted him into the back of the men’s vehicle. One witness said that he recognized the men as people who worked at the local Special Security Force office, known as the 20 June Base, in his neighborhood.

One of the armed men then got into al-Junaidi’s car, and both vehicles were driven to the special security office, which was within eyeshot. One witness kept watch and 15 minutes later saw the armored vehicle drive away, with al-Junaidi’s car following. Because of the darkly tinted windows on al-Junaidi’s car, the witness was unable to see who was driving and whether anyone else was in the car. He did not see al-Junaidi in the armored vehicle.

Al-Junaidi’s family told Human Rights Watch that when they found out the next morning that he had been taken into custody, they contacted the local police, the Criminal Investigation Department, the Security Administration, and local hospitals, requesting information about his whereabouts. No one they contacted gave them that information, and the government officials they spoke to denied that the security forces had arrested or were holding him.

On September 9, witnesses told Human Rights Watch a crowd of protesters gathered outside the office of President Hadi’s brother, Nasser Mansour Hadi, who is the deputy head of the Political Security Organization in the southern coastal provinces of Aden, Abyan, and Lahj.

They sought the release of several people, including al-Junaidi. Relatives of al-Junaidi who were there told Human Rights Watch that Nasser Mansour Hadi came out and told the crowd that the men whose release they were seeking were accused of serious crimes, mentioning al-Junaidi and others by name.

On September 10, a friend of the family informed al-Junaidi’s father that they could bring food, clothes, and al-Junaidi’s diabetes and asthma medicines to the Political Security office in Tawahi, Aden. Al-Junaidi’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he then contacted the head of criminal appeals prosecution in Aden, Waleed Kazm, and the head of appeals prosecution, Qahir Mustafa. Both said that they were unable to provide any information on al-Junaidi’s whereabouts, and that they had not ordered al-Junaidi’s arrest.

Al-Junaidi’s family thought that he was being held in the Political Security office in Tawahi, so his brother brought food, clothing, and medicine there from September 10 to 13. He told Human Rights Watch that he asked office guards to give the items to al-Junaidi. On September 13, an unidentified official at the office told the brother that he would no longer be allowed to bring items for al-Junaidi. The official would not confirm nor deny whether al-Junaidi was being detained there.

On September 15, al-Junaidi’s lawyer asked the prosecutors, Kazm and Mustafa, to send a letter to the Political Security office demanding information on al-Junaidi’s whereabouts.

According to Amnesty International, al-Junaidi had previously been arrested four times, most recently on November 6, 2013. He was held in al-Solban Prison in Aden, then released on November 27 without charge. He had also been arrested twice in 2011 and in February 2013 for taking part in protests. During his previous arrests, officials notified his family about his whereabouts, and he had access to his lawyer – albeit limited. His family said that he had participated in a demonstration on August 28, 2014, and that they fear that was the reason for his latest arrest.

Yemen’s Southern Movement (Hirak) is an umbrella group seeking independence or greater autonomy for southern Yemen. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple incidents in Aden in which security forces have used excessive use of force against southern protesters. Since the change in government in 2012, southern activists have expressed fewer complaints about security forces using excessive force during demonstrations.

Under Yemeni law, authorities must bring charges against anyone detained within 24 hours of their arrest.

An enforced disappearance occurs when someone is deprived of their liberty by state authorities, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person. Enforced disappearances are absolutely prohibited under international law and are a grave crime subject to universal jurisdiction for the purposes of prosecuting those responsible. Enforced disappearances are flagrant and serious violations of rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture, both of  which Yemen has ratified. These include grave threats to the right to life; the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; the right to liberty and security; and the right to recognition as a person before the law.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body that oversees governments’ compliance with the ICCPR, has repeatedly held that enforced disappearances violate multiple human rights protections and, in particular, that being held indefinitely without contact with one’s family and the outside world constitutes a violation of the prohibition on torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment.

Enforced disappearances have been common in Yemen’s history, with waves of cases during various eras of political turmoil.

“The enforced disappearance of al-Junaidi should raise alarm bells among activists and the broader population,” Stork said. “The case seriously undermines government efforts over the past two years to demonstrate respect for the rule of law.”

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