SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's internationally-recognized government on Saturday ordered the creation of a committee to investigate allegations of human rights violations, following reports that U.S. military interrogators worked with forces from the United Arab Emirates who are accused of torturing detainees in Yemen.
A copy of the order issued by Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr was obtained by The Associated Press. It said the investigation would focus on areas liberated by government forces from Shiite rebels known as the Houthis and their allies.
The six-member committee will be chaired by Justice Minister Jamal Mohamed Omar and include representatives from the Human Rights Ministry, security agencies and the prosecution. It will immediately start work and have 15 days to conclude its investigation and report back to bin Daghr.
The reports of the abuses were revealed in an AP investigation published Thursday. The investigation detailed a network of secret prisons across southern Yemen where hundreds are detained in the hunt for al-Qaida militants. American defense officials said U.S. forces have interrogated some detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in, or knowledge of, human rights abuses.
Defense officials told the AP that the department had looked into reports of torture and concluded that its personnel were not involved or aware of any abuses. The American officials confirmed that the U.S. provides questions to the Emiratis and receives transcripts of their interrogations. The officials said the U.S. also provides information to the UAE on suspected al-Qaida militants that the U.S. believes should be apprehended or questioned.
The 18 lock-ups mentioned in the AP investigation are run by the UAE and by Yemeni forces it created, according to accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers and Yemeni military officials. At the Riyan airport in the southern Yemeni city of Mukalla, former inmates described shipping containers smeared with feces and crammed with blindfolded detainees. They said they were beaten, roasted alive on a spit and sexually assaulted, among other abuses. One witness, who is a member of a Yemeni security force, said American forces were at times only yards (meters) away.
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Friday that the allegations are "completely untrue" and a "political game" by Yemeni militias to discredit a Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE and which has been fighting since 2015 on the side of the internationally-recognized government against the rebels. It says it does not run or oversee any prisons in Yemen, and that any such facilities are under "the jurisdiction of the legitimate Yemeni authorities."
Most of the clandestine sites are run by either the Hadramawt Elite or Security Belt, Yemeni forces that were created, trained and financed by the UAE. Officially, they are under the authority of Yemen's internationally-recognized government, but multiple Yemeni government officials told the AP they have no control over them and they answer to the Emiratis.
It was not immediately clear whether the committee set up on Saturday by the Yemeni government would gain access to any of the lockups and whether its findings could lead to action that may end the abuses. Yemeni rights lawyers and activists were skeptical about the outcome, saying they did not expect commanders of the two UAE-backed military outfits to meaningfully assist in the investigation.
Relations between Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the UAE have been fraught with tension, chiefly over allegations by the Yemeni leader that the Emiratis are offering patronage to southern Yemeni politicians campaigning for secession as well as what he sees as UAE violations of his country's sovereignty.
In Washington, pressure has been mounting on the U.S. Defense Department after multiple U.S. senators called for investigations into the reports, with John McCain, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the ranking Democrat, Jack Reed, calling the reports "deeply disturbing."
McCain and Reed wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis Friday asking him to conduct an immediate review of the reported abuses and what U.S. forces knew.
"Even the suggestion that the United States tolerates torture by our foreign partners compromises our national security mission by undermining the moral principle that distinguishes us from our enemies — our belief that all people possess basic human rights," the senators wrote Mattis. "We are confident that you find these allegations as extremely troubling as we do."
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, also called for an investigation and noted that support for the UAE forces could violate a law he wrote that forbids funding to known human rights violators.
"Reports of acts of torture by agents of a government that is supported by the United States, and the possibility that U.S. military personnel may have been aware of it, should ring alarm bells at the Department of Defense," Leahy said in a statement to the AP.
The American Civil Liberties Union also said Friday that it had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for U.S. records related to the interrogations.