Sanaa: Al Qaida committed “horrific” rights abuses during its 16 months in power in southern Yemen, Amnesty International charged in a report released Tuesday, documenting the beheading of an alleged sorcerer, crucifixion of a man accused of spying and amputation of a man’s hand for stealing.
The rights abuses between February 2011 and June 2012, when Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) affiliate Ansar Al Shariah took over parts of southern Yemen, resulted in “a human rights catastrophe,” according to the London-based rights group.
The report also accuses Yemen’s government of abuses.
“We believe that horrific human rights abuses took place and violations of international humanitarian law by both sides,” according to author of the report, Celina Nasser.
Al Qaida’s takeover of large swaths of territory in southern Yemen was the first time the group has governed entire towns and cities.
The 57-page report, titled “Conflict in Yemen: Abyan’s Darkest Hour,” documents some of the violations during the conflict between Yemeni government forces and Ansar Al Shariah. It also sheds light on how Al Qaida militants ran government affairs.
Al Qaida militants seized Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province on the Arabian Sea coast, while Yemen was mired in the turmoil of a popular uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The militants also took control of several nearby towns. Saleh, once a US ally, stepped down in February under a Gulf-mediated, US-backed deal.
Al Qaida set up committees to rule southern Yemen. Their rulings and punishments were documented in videos released by Al Qaida in Yemen’s media arm. Amnesty compiled some in a nearly 10-minute video released with the report.
The video shows a man in front of a crowd holding the severed head of a woman accused of sorcery. Other scenes show amputation of a man’s left hand in a public square in the town of Jaar in southern Yemen. He was accused of stealing electronic wires. Without a trial or prior knowledge of the punishment, he wakes up to find his hand was cut off.
“They gave me an injection, and I slept, when I woke up, my hand was not there,” the man told Amnesty.
Another scene shows the bloated body of a man who was killed and crucified in a public square.
Stores were forcibly closed during the five daily Muslim prayers. A woman tells Amnesty that an Ansar Al Shariah militant banned men from entering her store.
“I would keep the door open, so he hung a curtain to make sure that no one could see me,” she said.
The group also forced women to not only cover their faces, as is tradition in Yemen, but also to cover their eyes.
In May, the group destroyed tombs and shrines that they regarded as idolatrous in three villages in the governorate of Abyan.
Around a quarter-million people were displaced due to the conflict. The World Food Programme says that more than 10 million Yemenis - 44.5 per cent of the population - are food insecure, many of them internally displaced.
Amnesty researcher, Nasser, said there were few checkpoints between the large southern city of Aden and the town of Jaar, which was the first to fall to Al Qaida and served as the group’s base in the absence of government forces.
“In Jaar, I didn’t see any military presence. I think those who are running the show now are the Popular Committees,” she said a phone interview.
The governor of Abyan province said the government has yet to rebuild schools, hospitals, roads, sewage systems or even secure the area. He said food aid is also needed.
“The Interior Ministry has not until now taken any positive steps on the ground,” Jamal Al Aqil said.
Amnesty’s report also points to the killing of civilians, including children, as a result of air strikes and artillery and mortar attacks by government forces trying to force out Al Qaida militants from residential areas.
Amnesty said that Yemeni government forces used inappropriate battlefield weapons such as artillery in civilian areas. In other attacks, government forces appeared to fail to take necessary precautions to spare civilians, the report said.
“We cannot rule out that some of these airstrikes were carried out by US drones,” Nasser said. “We call on the United States to also investigate what weapons were used in these airstrikes where civilians were killed.”
Washington considers the AQAP to be the network’s most dangerous offshoot. The group has been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots on US soil.
This summer, a Yemeni military campaign against AQAP in southern Yemen was orchestrated by US military advisers and financially assisted by neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The US helped Yemenis from a command center manned by dozens of US. troops in the southern desert outside of the main battle zones. They coordinated assaults and airstrikes, and have carried out drone strikes.
“It’s not only the Yemeni government. Any state that was supporting it, including the US, should bear responsibility for the killing of civilians,” Nasser said.
Since the offensive drove Al Qaida from the towns, the militants have sought refuge in nearby mountain areas and retaliated with assassinations of security and military officials and suicide bombings.
Nasser warned that the conflict could renew, with both sides “committing the same violations.”