Yemen in Focus: UAE-backed STC 'violating human rights in Socotra'

Yemen in Focus: UAE-backed STC 'violating human rights in Socotra'
6 min read
06 November, 2020
This week we focus on rights violations in Socotra, a US admission to civilian casualties and Yemen's at-risk heritage.
The STC's militia took control of Socotra in June. [Getty]

The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council has been accused of violating human rights on Yemen's Socotra since capturing control of the island earlier this year.

Geneva-based rights organisation SAM said armed elements affiliated with the southern secessionists arbitrarily arrested Dr Ahmed Salem al-Amiri, a professor at the College of Education in Socotra, and detained him for some five hours for publishing an opinion piece on the situation on the island.

SAM, which monitors rights violations in Yemen, also said it has been monitoring the systematic dismissal of opponents of the STC and its militia from their jobs and the arbitrary arrests of several activists that oppose its policy on the island, the most recent of which was the arrest of Socotra port director, Riad Saeed Suleiman on 2 November.

According to sources close to the detained official, the militia imprisoned him and threatened him to hand over his official stamp as the port director.

Earlier in September, leading activists Ahmad Hadid Khamis, Saad Ahmad Muhammad al-Qaddumi, and Ramzi Jamaan Muhammad were detained for their participation in a peaceful demonstration in the Qalansiyah district of the island.

In the same month, the Emirati-backed southern secessionists, who have gained control of the archipelago in recent years, responded to peaceful anti-Israel normalisation protests by firing bullets and blocking roads to disperse the crowds.

A statement by the protesters also called for the return of the leadership of the local authority, the extension of state control over all institutions, an end to the armed presence on the island, as well as the abolition of all military camps established by non-state actors.

The UAE-backed STC took control of Socotra in June after clashes with government forces.

Yemen's internationally-recognised government has long accused the UAE of supporting the secessionists to serve Emirati interests in Yemen.

The UAE has allegedly been seeking to annex the island due to its strategic location. Recent reports quoting Issa Salem bin Yaqut, a chief of tribes in Socotra, claimed both the UAE and its Saudi ally are allowing Israel intelligence agents into Yemen.

Bin Yaqut also accused the UAE of "destroying the charming and rare environmental landmarks on Socotra Island" and called for their expulsion.

According to a separate report, the alleged move aims at establishing an Israeli-Emirati intelligence-gathering base on the island to "monitor Iran, China and Pakistan".

"This Israeli-Emirati spy base aims at monitoring the Iranian activities in the Gulf of Aden and curbing Tehran's relationship with Houthi rebels," Ibrahim Fraihat, a professor of international conflict resolution at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, was quoted by Anadolu Agency as saying.

Following the UAE-Israel normalisation deal earlier in September, US website SouthFront, which specialises in military and strategic research, reported the arrival of an Emirati-Israeli delegation to the island.

The report said the aim of the visit was to establish strategic cooperation on the Yemeni island.

US strikes in Yemen dramatically increased since Trump took office, with at least 127 attacks in the first year alone

US civilian casualties in Yemen

Also in Yemen this week, the US military confessed to its role in two more civilian casualties after an Airwars report revealed dozens were injured or killed by US drone strikes, according to Business Insider.

Spokesperson for US Central Command Maj. John J. Risbee said he reviewed the report and confirmed a 2017 airstrike had indeed "caused injuries to two civilians."

The 14 September attack had targeted suspected al-Qaeda militants, killing three. No other civilian casualties were reported at the time. A Yemeni security official who spoke to Reuters said the US drone strike "had targeted a motorcycle which the suspected militants were riding."

Read more: Biden and the Saudi quagmire in Yemen

However, the report by Airwars confirmed a "passing vehicle was damaged," which had caused unspecified injuries.

The monitoring group believes at least 154 Yemeni civilians, including at least 28 children, have been killed during the Trump presidency. The US has only claimed between 4 and 12 civilian casualties in Yemen since 2017.

Among the children killed in a US drone strike under Trump was an 8-year-old Yemeni girl, who was also a US citizen. In a statement to Business Insider Maj. Risbee acknowledged "there may have been civilian casualties" during that early morning raid.

However, he rejected other allegations in the report which he said "were not assessed as credible upon our review."

US strikes in Yemen dramatically increased since Trump took office, with at least 127 attacks in the first year alone, according to figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This figure is believed to be more than all his predecessors combined, Business Insider reported.

Yemen's heritage at risk

Meanwhile, Yemen's ancient city of Shibam, which escaped damage in the civil war, faces collapse from disrepair amid rains and floods.

Dubbed the "Manhattan of the desert" for its centuries-old skyscrapers, the UNESCO-listed World Heritage site is strategically built on a rocky spur high above the river valley of Wadi Hadramout, in the arid centre of Yemen.

"The city looks like it was hit by a disaster - without precedent," said Abdulwahab Jaber, a local official in the town, 480 kilometres (300 miles) east of the capital Sanaa.

The UAE-backed STC took control of Socotra in June after clashes with government forces

Jaber said at least four towers have been completely destroyed and 15 others damaged in recent floods, which have killed scores of people across Yemen.

Hassan Aidid, head of the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen, said that the roofs and the exterior of the mud towers had sustained the most damage.

"Residents of the city have been unable to restore them because of the war and the difficult situation in which they live," Aidid told AFP.

Read more: Yemen in Focus: Only a ceasefire can save 2,500-year-old heritage sites

The city, with its densely-packed tower houses and alleyways often too narrow for cars, was put on the UNESCO heritage list in 1982 - but in 2015 it was also added to the "List of World Heritage in Danger".

It came shortly after the Saudi-led military coalition joined the war to support the government against the Houthi rebels.

Aidid said an emergency response plan in cooperation with UNESCO is underway, with approximately 40 buildings being restored at a cost of $194,000.

Read more: Will UAE-Israel deal draw Tel Aviv into
Yemen's war?

Private donors have also offered to help, including a Saudi businessman who donated approximately $54,000, Aidid said.

But while restoration plans are going ahead, helped by some funding from the European Union, they are not going fast enough, said Barak Baswitine, head of the association of mud-brick architecture in Shibam.

"There have been some difficulties," he said. "The work is slow due to lack of local skilled manpower that meets the standards."

Shibam is one of three historical sites that bear witness to the mud-brick architectural past of the Hadramout region in Yemen.

Those irreplaceable ancient sites, representing Yemen's unique historical heritage, are also under threat. Some 20 kilometres east of Shibam is one of the world's largest mud-brick towers, the Seiyun Palace, which is at risk of collapse as heavy rains and years of neglect take their toll.

The third is the city of Tarim, about 40 kilometres east from the city, and known for its 365 mosques - including Al-Mehdar, which has the tallest minaret in Yemen.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino