A new report by Amnesty International documents a "raft of gross and deeply disturbing abuses" committed by both Islamist rebels and Yemeni government forces during their struggle for the control of the southern region of Abyan in 2011 and 2012, and called for an urgent inquiry. The report, "Conflict in Yemen: Abyan’s Darkest Hour," examines abuses by Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) when they controlled the governorate of Abyan and other areas in the south of Yemen between February 2011 and June 2012, including public summary killings, crucifixion, amputation and flogging.
"Abyan experienced a human rights catastrophe as Ansar al-Shari’a and government forces vied for control of the region during 2011 and the first half of 2012," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa. "The Yemeni authorities must ensure that a commission of inquiry announced in September 2012 covers the truly shocking abuses committed. The tragedy of Abyan will haunt Yemen for decades to come unless those responsible are held to account and victims and their families receive reparations."
Ansar al-Shari’a rapidly established control of the small city of Ja'ar in Abyan governorate of Abyan in early 2011, at a time when the Yemeni authorities were brutally repressing protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit. The armed group successfully attacked government forces and officials, looted banks and seized ammunition, heavy weapons and other military equipment from abandoned Yemeni military and police stations. It quickly gained territory and by mid-2011 it controlled most towns and villages in Abyan, including the governorate's capital, Zinjibar. During its rule, it was responsible for widespread and disturbing human rights abuses including via "religious courts," set up as part of the organization's governing structure. Amnesty found that these frequently imposed "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments" on alleged criminals, suspected government informants and those who transgressed cultural norms, including summary killings, amputations and floggings.
Saleh Ahmed Saleh al-Jamli, 28, was found guilty by a "religious court" in Ja’ar of planting two electronic devices in two vehicles carrying Ansar al-Sharia commanders. The ruling obtained by Amnesty International said the devices had enabled US drones to kill the commanders in Zinjibar and claimed Saleh al-Jamli "confessed" to a judicial committee. The "religious court" ruled that Saleh al-Jamli be killed, and his remains crucified.
Amnesty also confirmed that Ansar al-Sharia amputated the hand of at least one person suspected of theft; the young man's left hand was amputated last year in a public square in Ja'ar after being accused of stealing electric wires. The youth, who is a member of a marginalized community widely referred to as al-Akhdam (servants), said that his hand was amputated after he was tortured for five days without access to a lawyer or his family, without attending trial and without prior knowledge of the punishment. Residents told Amnesty International that the amputated hand was suspended by a rope in the town's market for all to see.
The rights of women and girls in particular came under attack in Abyan under Islamist rule. Severe dress codes were imposed, as was a strict separation of the sexes and restrictions at work and in schools.
In May, the government launched a major offensive to retake Abyan, using air power and artillery. By the end of June 2012, government forces succeeded in driving the Islamists out of Abyan and surrounding areas. Islamist fighters used residential areas as their base, particularly in Ja'ar, recklessly exposing civilian residents to harm. Scores of civilians, including children, were killed and many more injured as a result of air-strikes and artillery and mortar attacks by government forces. Government forces used "inappropriate battlefield weapons" such as artillery in residential areas. Between fighting and human rights abuses meant an estimated 250,000 people were displaced from the southern governorates.
While Ansar al-Shari’a were driven out of the cities and towns they controlled in June 2012, Amnesty says "there remains a danger the group will re-emerge and that the armed conflict will resume." (AI, Dec. 4)