U.S. officials interrogated prisoners at United Arab Emirates-linked secret prisons in Yemen where extreme torture is routine, says Human Rights Watch’s Kristine Beckerle
Aaron Mate: It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The US shut down it’s global torture and secret prison program years ago. But that doesn’t mean the abuses have stopped. New reporting from the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch reveals US involvement in a network of secret prisons in Yemen and Eritrea. The prisons are run by local forces and the UAE, a key member of the Saudi-led coalition that is bombing Yemen. Hundreds of prisoners have been disappeared into the prisons where torture is said to be extreme. US officials have carried out interrogations at these sites, a potential violation of international law. Kristine Beckerle is the Yemen and UAE researcher for Human Rights Watch and she joins me now. Welcome Kristine. Kristine Becker: Thanks very much for having me. Aaron Mate: Lay out for us what you found. Kristine Becker: The report that came out today is a product of about six months of research by myself and my colleagues. Looking at particularly in [inaudible 00:01:08] governments in southern and eastern Yemen, allegations and what we found were facts of arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, torture, abuse, by UAE backed Yemeni forces. What that included was a number of informal detention sites and secret prisons where, basically Yemeni’s were getting spirited away, disappearing months on end and where former detainees and family members would tell us there was serious abuse on-going against these detainees. That, on top of the AP’s reporting, which I think was really, really great work by Maggie Michael, in terms of what the US is doing. And that the US has a role in this, that the US itself has interrogated people in Yemen, been cooperating closely with the UAE in these campaigns, again, exactly where we found this grotesque abuse is very, very concerning on a number of levels. Like you said, it reminds us of some of the worst abuses we saw 10-15 years ago. This is today, and the concern is, are we going to see people really investigate and take action against what is basically allegations that one of the US’s key counter-terror partners is implicated in serious violations of international law? Aaron Mate: Before we get into the legal implications that you raise here, let’s speak more about the allegations. The AP report cites a detainee who was held at the Riyan airport in the southern city of Mukalla. Former inmates there described … I’m reading from the AP here, described being crammed into shipping containers, smeared with feces, and blindfolded for weeks on end. They said they were beaten, trussed up on the grill, and sexually assaulted. The grill, actually is something that resembles a spit, as I understand? Kristine Becker: Yeah, so basically what the AP reported was that the way it worked was the people were trussed up and put over extreme temperatures or fire. I think any human hearing that would be appalled to say the least. On top of these things, we also heard from former detainees about the use of electric shocks, caning on feet, threats against individuals or their family members, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, horrendous conditions. It runs the gammit of different ways in which you can abuse or torture detainees that you hear from people who were held either in the airport or in other detention facilities. That’s one piece of the puzzle, it’s obviously very, very horrible piece of the puzzle. On top of that, you also just have families being ripped apart whereby men and boys, we documented cases of kids being taken away, are arrested in the middle of the night, often abused, then taken nobody knows where and then family members spend weeks, if not months trying to figure out just where their loved ones are. Then, they hears these stories about this horrible, horrible abuse in these detention facilities. I think one of the things that probably will always stick with me is during the month of Ramadan, it’s traditional in many places to release detainees and, over the last few weeks, we’ve been getting messages over and over again for family members asking us, “Will their sons be released, will they find out even if or where their brother’s are being held or I they’re okay, or if they’ve died,” who knows what. One of the things that we’ve been pushing and certainly push in our piece is that, as a first step, what the UAE and the Yemeni forces involved should be doing is letting people know, at least, where their loved ones are being held. Then, of course, giving people access to these detention facilities because you hear these stories of abuse and then you also layer on to that that nobody really has access to these sites to go and monitor conditions of detention. It basically all adds up to a very, very grim picture. Aaron Mate: According to the AP, we’re talking about at least 18 secret cites in Yemen and up to 2,000 prisoners that have disappeared. Let’s talk more about the UAE and the US. Now, the UAE said a response to the AP piece that there are no secret prisons in Yemen and no torture, no interrogations going on. The US said, according to the AP, that senior US military leaders were aware of the torture allegations, looked into them, but were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when they were present. That’s an important qualification because even if there was no abuse when they were present, it doesn’t mean they were abused before. According to international law, as I understand it, interrogating people who have been tortured would be a violation. On top of that, according to the AP, you have one member of a group called the Hadrami Elite, I think I’m pronouncing that right, I’m sorry if I’m not, a Yemeni security force that was set up by the UAE, that member said American forces were, at times, only yards away. Kristine Becker: Yeah, basically, how can I put this the best, it would bet your belief that the US would not be aware of these allegation and of the abuse, given the fact that, I mean it’s publicly reported and the US officials have stated, even before today, that they’re working very, very closely with the UAE and counter-terror efforts against AQAP in Yemen. So, you have reporting that the UAE and US are conducting joint raids, including the raid in January that we actually investigated and found likely, or raised concerns that the US may have violated the laws of war even there, too, because the raids killed tons of civilians, including nine kids. We also knew and know that the US was working very closely with the UAE in Mukalla, again the place where some of these secret detention sites exist and where many of the abuse of the worst abuses have been documented. For the US to claim ignorance would be a bit silly. What is, in fact silly, is for the UAE to say there is no secret prisons and there is no detentions. What I’m hoping is that, the power of, there was a Human Rights Watch report, there’s an AP report, Yemeni activists and lawyers have been talking about this for many, many months. The notion that all of this is false, or untrue, or unfounded allegations is nonsensical at this point. On the US side, to say we weren’t present exactly when torture or abuse was happening, that does not allow them to wash their hands of these violations because as you said, the notion that they’re … what the AP reported is, they’re getting transcripts of the interrogations that they’re sharing questions, names, that they’re going and conducting interrogations with these people who may be “softened up” after getting abused by the UAE. Those things are also violation and those things also go against the US’s own obligations not to use intelligence from and certainly not to engage in or be complicit in torture. It’s hard to emphasize how serious these allegations are and how much both anyone partnering with the UAE in Yemen in terms of CT campaigns should be concerned and really should be pushing and putting pressure on the UAE in terms of ceasing these abuses and giving access to detention faculties. On the US side, I think the US needs to take a good hard look at what it’s doing in Yemen, because now you’ve got a potentially complicit or potentially aiding and abetting UAE abuses in the CT campaign against AQAP. They’ve already, for two and a half years, been putting themselves at legal risk of being complicit in Saudi violations or the Saudi-like coalition violations against the Houthis. It’s really just- Aaron Mate: Because they’ve been selling Saudi Arabia weapons and also helping them with bombing operations. Kristine Becker: Yeah, so it’s basically they’ve been selling them weapons, they’ve been re-fueling their jets on bombing missions. They’ve said that they’ve been sharing intel, they’ve had officers based in Riad, the US, itself is a party to that conflict against the Houthis and allies of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. We just saw President Trump go to Saudi and say, “Here’s another $110,000,000,000 worth of deals,” however you wanna cut it, that’s not a particularly good signal. I think basically the punch line is, “Okay, US, what in fact are your aims in Yemen? What are you trying to achieve? And, at what point do you say the people we are partnering with are committing gross abuses and we, ourselves are potentially complicit in aiding and abetting those abuses due to our role in support to those partners?” Aaron Mate: Yeah, and I think this angle is the most explosive here because as you mentioned earlier, we’ve known for a long time about allegations of torture inside Yemen. Not just by one side, but also by the other side, by Houthis forces and forces allied to their ally former President Saleh, which you have also documented. Here, you have the US taking part in interrogations of people who may have been tortured and I’m wondering if that allegation is true, could this be seen just basically as a continuation of the old secret torture program, just under a different rubric? Kristine Becker: I think one of the things … it’s actually funny, when I was in law school, I had done some work on what’s called proxy detention, which is when the US partners with an allied force in terms of carrying out either joint interrogations or gleaning intelligence from interrogations. What we were looking at was, even under the Obama years, whether or not the US was engaging in proxy detentions, and benefiting from abusive detainees. I think what’s particularly troubling about these allegations is, again, they’re not alien to an American audience. We’ve heard these stories before. The hope was that these stories wouldn’t happen again and they’d be done and ended. The problem is, if you have a CIA torture program, as the US did and then you don’t hold officials involved in that program accountable, and you don’t have a reckoning about what that means, then it’s very hard to say that these abuses are going to stop. That is the reason why accountability and prosecutions and these sorts of things and transparency are so important because it makes it more difficult for abuses to be repeated. Now, we’re seeing the first bits of evidence that the US is, once again, partnering with forces certainly who are engaged in pretty grotesque abuses of detainees in the name of counter-terrorism. I think there’s probably still a lot to be uncovered in terms of what, in fact, is going on in Yemen. What, in fact, the US role is. What, in fact, the role of any others might be. I think, I’ll leave it at that, with just the final statement that part of the reason we push for accountability for violations more broadly in Yemen is, as you say, this isn’t just a UAE problem, it’s not just a US problem, the Houthis have also engaged in pretty grotesque abuses of detainees, but the reason you push for accountability both in Yemen and more broadly is, again so that you ideally move to a place where these violations aren’t repeated. These particular allegations are so horrifying because there has been conversations with the US for 15 years about what is the appropriate response to the notion that the US engaged in torture on a very large scale post 9/11. Ultimately, that did not come down on the side of accountability. At least on my end, I think that is a mistake because without accountability, once again, it’s just easier to repeat mistakes that have happened in the past. When I say mistakes, by the way, I mean gross abuses that had horrible impacts on human beings. Aaron Mate: Finally, Kristine, let’s talk about the wider political context that this revelation of tortured secret prisons comes in. We’ve just had the Saudi King Solomon replace his nephew, his Crown Prince, choosing his own son, Mohammad Ben Salman Abdulaziz. Abdulaziz is the Saudi Defense Minister and has been running the war in Yemen. I’m wondering what that palace move means for the war in Yemen. Especially given that Abdulaziz’ handling of the war has been so criticized because it’s been so deadly to the civilian population. Kristine Becker: I guess we will see, but what I will say is that I judge people on the things they have done and Mohammad bin Salman as the Defense Minister and as Deputy Crown Prince, as you said has overseen what has been the devastating campaign in Yemen. You’re now at post two and a half years, you’ve got Human Rights Watch has documented more than 80 apparently unlawful attacks by the coalition, amnesty is documented many more, the UN Yemeni Human Rights groups and these violations just keep going and keep continuing. You have Mohammad bin Salman who’s, again, the Defense Minister so the Saudi official responsible for this campaign. We don’t see real steps being taken to stop these abuses. That’s both, in terms of just stopping bombing hotels, not hotels sorry, hospitals, markets, homes, schools. But it’s also about, again, talking about accountability, showing the world that you are, in fact, trying to change your behavior by, for example, really investigating, credibly investigating abuses that already occurred. Instead, what the coalition has done is create this investigative body that is incredibly non-transparent, basically white washes what the coalition does, and has findings drastically different than a variety of different international organizations. You take that person that we’ve seen for two and a half years oversee a campaign in Yemen that has devastated the country and contributed to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and you say, “Here’s more power,” it’s very hard to look at that and say, “Okay, this is going to be good for Yemen.” The question now becomes, “Okay, Mohammad bin Salman, you’ve got this extra power, you’ve got this new position, are you going to take this as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and commit to rights reforms and end the abuses? Or are we going to see the abuses continue in a different way?” I think that’s the question on the table, but it’s certainly not helpful if countries like the US or the UK or countries in Europe continue to sell millions or billions of dollars worth in arms to Saudi Arabia. The signal that that sends is, “Don’t worry it’s business as usual, continue what you’re doing and you’ll still get as many weapons as you want from us.” I think, or what I would urge, that leaders across the world do in this moment where Mohammad bin Salman is taking on this new authority is that they push him very specifically and directly on the war in Yemen and make clear that enough is enough and they’ll take steps to make it obvious that they are not on board with continuing war crimes by the Saudi led coalition. One of the ways in which they could do that would be by ceasing the sale of arms until the Saudi’s clean up their act and credibly investigate. I think, again, it remains to be seen what this may or may not mean for Yemen, but what is certainly true is that Mohammad bin Salman has had a central role on the Saudi side in terms of what has been, once again, a catastrophic war for the country and for Yemeni civilians. Aaron Mate: And just to underline how catastrophic it is, you have this cholera outbreak where a child in Yemen is being infected every 35 seconds, the death toll is over 1,000 now and of course, there’s the on-going risk of famine. I wanna thank my guest, Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher for Human Rights Watch, Kristine, thank you. Kristine Becker: Thank you very much. Aaron Mate: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.