Justice for the Disappeared in Yemen?

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Boys and men working in ferrying goods wait to be hired at a marketplace in Old Sanaa city 8 January 2013. (Photo: Reuters - Khaled Abdullah)

By: Jomana Farhat

Published Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The issue of forced disappearance in Yemen is one of the few topics that all the country’s political forces can agree. That is, an agreement that any attempt to uncover the fates of the disappeared must be suppressed. This likely stems from these political groups’ involvement in this horrific practice.

The first attempt to break the silence around this issue was undertaken in 2007 by al-Nidaa newspaper when it published a series of investigative reports about the disappeared and their families.

Many of the families from the reports take part every week in a campaign called “The Walls Remember their Faces,” which was launched by Yemeni artist Murad Subai. Hala al-Qarshi, daughter of Sultan al-Qarshi who was arrested and disappeared in 1978, said, “We feel now that their pictures on the walls speak.”

Salwa Qannaf – daughter of Ali Qannaf Zahra, an armored corps commander who was disappeared the day former Yemeni president Ibrahim al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977 – said that the campaign has helped to lift the families’ morales and counteract the neglect of the issue.

There are hundreds of other stories associated with the political strife in North and South Yemen over the course of many years, even before the 1994 War.

North Yemen

Although it is difficult to determine the exact date when the practice of forced disappearance began in Yemen, al-Nidaa’s editor Sami Ghaleb said, “I can estimate that this kind of crime began in North Yemen in the second half of the 1960s, during the civil war that raged between the republicans supported by Egypt and the royalists supported by Saudi Arabia.”

However, Ghaleb pointed out, forced disappearance as a widespread, systematic practice began in the early 1970s when it targeted leftists who opposed the right-leaning ruling regime.

While Ibrahim al-Hamdi’s term from 1974 to 1977 witnessed a decline in the practice, there was one case that was popularly known. Abdul-Aziz Awn, an activist in the Popular Vanguard Party, was arrested by security forces, in February 1977 and by October 1978, was disappeared.

In mid-October, the Nasserist organization tried to overthrow former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh who had only been in power for a few months. As a result, security agencies carried out a widespread campaign of arrests targeting Nasserists, leftist and Baathist activists.

“1978 is considered one of the bloodiest years in the North,” said Ghaleb. Detainees – including Qarshi, Awn, and at least ten others – were transferred from Dar al-Bashaer prison to an undisclosed location. The Yemeni regime continued its practice of forced disappearances until the end of 1983. It returned to practice again during the 1994 war, when Yemeni unity was imposed by force.

South Yemen

The years following the independence of South Yemen in November 1967 witnessed continuous political turmoil. South Yemenis were subjected to “cleansing waves” in which hundreds were disappeared.

Ghaleb explained that forced disappearances occurred from 1969 throughout the 1970s after the ruling regime launched “a security agency to pursue what they called counter-revolutionary forces.”

The tragedy of the Ban family is considered one of the most painful in the South. Nine family members were disappeared at the same time on 22 May 1971. Security agents were targeting Hussein Saleh Taysir al-Ban, so when they found him with eight members of his family, they arrested everyone. There has been no word of the family since.

The number of the disappeared declined in the late 1970s due to a relative stability that lasted until the 1980s. Yet the fighting between key leaders of the regime in 1986 led to the largest wave of disappearances in the history of the South. An estimated 500 persons or more were disappeared.

The 1994 War

During the 1994 War, “tens of Southern civilians and military personnel were disappeared by former president Saleh’s forces and his Jihadi and Islamist allies,” said Ghaleb.

Most prominent among those disappeared during that period is Socialist Party politburo member Saleh Mounser al-Saili, who was state security minister in the South before unification. In addition to Saili, the fate of nearly 90 supporters of the Socialist Party – including the wife and oldest son of Socialist Party leader Shafal Omar, who were trying to leave Aden on 7 July 1994 aboard a commercial ship – is still a mystery.

Forces Embroiled in Forced Disappearance

According to Ghaleb, the main opponents to investigations of forced disappearances are the leaders of the Southern Movement and the Socialist Party. Although the largest number of the disappeared in the North are members of the Socialist Party, the party leadership is “terrified of issues festering from the past.”

Any talk of forced disappearance is portrayed as a conspiracy against the Southern Movement, when in fact the Movement in its various currents is trying to hide its involvement in forced disappearances in the South.

Another group suspected of engaging in the practice of forced disappearance is the national security agency in the North, which was responsible for the arrest of political dissidents.

Within the security agency, the name of the secretary general of the Yemeni Reform Rally Muhammad al-Yadomi often comes up. Yadomi is associated with the case of journalist Muhammad Ali Qassem Hadi who was arrested in May 1982. Hadi was a leftist from the Ibb governorate in the North. It is rumored that Hadi was killed and tortured by Yadomi himself.

In the 1994 War, jihadi groups, including fighters from the Yemeni Reform Rally, took part in kidnapping young men who were supporters of the Socialist Party and disappearing them.

Circumventing Justice

Despite these complications, the families of the disappeared have not abandoned their demands to uncover the fates of their loved ones. That is why these families await for the final version of a transitional justice law to be passed soon.

It has become evident that the draft law will be aborted since it would be restricted solely to post-2011 events.

The law was supposed to look into the cases of “all those who were harmed or had their rights violated due to the actions of political parties – whether from the government or those who opposed it – as a result of conflicts from 1990 until the passage of this law.” It is clear now that its scope will be limited.

While they await the law, families could file lawsuits against those implicated in the forced disappearance of their loved ones.

In this context, Waddah Sultan Amin al-Qarshi said that the Association of the Families of the Disappeared is in the process of preparing comprehensive files to present to the Yemeni or possibly international courts.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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