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Yemen criticized by human rights group

A sectarian uprising could flare again unless the government moves to correct treatment of detainees, report says.

October 25, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Daragahi is a Times staff writer.

BEIRUT — A devastating but now dormant conflict between the government of Yemen and rebels is likely to reignite and further destabilize the country unless officials address festering human rights violations, an international watchdog reported Friday.

A report by New York-based Human Rights Watch says dozens of political prisoners remain locked up in Yemeni prisons without charge or trial. Some people have disappeared as a result of the conflict between the government and the rebels, who are members of a Shiite Muslim sect known as the Zaidis, the report says.

The rebels are often called Houthis, after the clan that led the years-long uprising in northern Yemen.

According to the 47-page report, security forces in the impoverished Arabian peninsula nation "systematically and unlawfully" jailed several hundred people, including journalists, in the course of a four-year civil war.

Yemen, a nation of 23 million that is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, faces a barrage of social, economic and political problems but remains a steadfast ally of the West in combating Al Qaeda, as well as the scourge of piracy off its coast. One out of every 25 barrels of the world's oil production passes through Yemen's waters en route to the West.

The U.S. and other countries rarely criticize Yemen's handling of prisoners, especially since its track record compares favorably with those of other Middle East countries that routinely jail and torture Islamic activists and secular dissidents.

But Human Rights Watch argues that the Houthi rebellion is a dangerous distraction that exacerbates Yemen's other problems by drawing resources that could be used to fight Al Qaeda, patrol Yemen's restive waters and keep the country from breaking along regional lines into northern and southern sections.

Observers are concerned that the current cease-fire won't hold, especially since an earlier truce failed because, critics charge, the government reneged on its promise to release Houthi loyalists. That fed growing anger against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is also a Zaidi but has largely allied himself with the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

"They're not knocking heads to stabilize the country," said Christoph Wilcke, the Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote the report. "It's having the opposite effect. This is a futile conflict. . . . Continuing the war is undermining stability both in terms of resources and the growing anger at the government."

Wilcke, who spent two months researching the report, said he met Thursday with National Security Council officials in Washington in hope of influencing efforts to draft a new Yemen policy. A Sept. 17 car bomb explosion targeting the U.S. Embassy in Sana, the Yemeni capital, killed at least 16 people, mostly bystanders. He said U.S. officials are concerned that the practices of the Saleh government may be undermining broader security concerns.

"They're not shrugging anymore" at Yemen's human rights violations, he said. "Their ears are perking up."

The report is based on interviews with victims of the security forces and their family members. One family described how they were taunted by security forces when they inquired about a relative who had been detained. "How does your son pray?" an official asked the man's father. "With his arms by his side [in the fashion of Shiite Muslims], or with his arms crossed [in the fashion of Sunni Muslims]?"

A Zaidi religious scholar named Mohammed Mufti disappeared after a May 21 incident in which 15 suspected security force members began shooting at his car. "That was the last anyone has seen of my husband," his wife told Human Rights Watch.

Wilcke said Yemen had made significant progress in its human rights record in the 1990s but was backsliding, largely in response to the Houthi rebellion.

"The question of disappearances started with this conflict," he said. "The army now doesn't care for the niceties of civil liberties. But that's not something unavoidable."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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