Yemeni attorney Huda Al-Sarari had been representing women in domestic abuse and gender-based violence cases for years, when around 2015 she began fielding a different cry for help.
As a civil conflict in Yemen turned to a proxy war between regional powers, women would call Al-Sarari in the middle of the night to tell her that their homes had just been raided and their husbands, brothers, and sons taken away by force. Others would reach out to her after having spent days searching for their loved ones at prisons and police stations, and pleading with officials who told them they had no involvement in the men’s detention or knowledge of their whereabouts.
“These families were saying, ‘Help us, our sons were kidnapped,’” Al-Sarari told The Intercept in an interview. “I couldn’t hear about these violations and crimes and do nothing.”
The disappearances started shortly after Saudi Arabia launched an aerial and ground intervention in Yemen that was backed by the United States and involved other regional powers, like the United Arab Emirates. During the campaign, the UAE, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, took control of vast swaths of Yemen’s south. As the number of the forcibly disappeared in and near the city of Aden grew in the hundreds, reports began to circulate that the men had been detained, beaten, and often tortured by informal Yemeni security forces trained and armed by the UAE.
Al-Sarari, along with a group of other attorneys and activists, began quietly investigating the reports. Their meticulous documentation effort culminated in a database that at one point included the names of more than 10,000 men and boys, most of whom were detained outside the domain of the state’s judicial system. It helped expose a network of secret prisons run by the UAE with the knowledge and at times direct involvement of U.S. forces.
The work of Al-Sarari and her colleagues was central to groundbreaking reports published by the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch in 2017. The revelations about the coalition’s abuses in southern Yemen renewed scrutiny of foreign powers’ involvement in the country’s civil conflict, as well as of the human rights abuses that continue to be carried out by U.S. allies in the name of counterterrorism. The documentation efforts contributed to the release of more than 260 detainees in the months following the reports’ publication, and could provide essential evidence as a growing number of international actors call for accountability for the widespread violations committed by all parties to Yemen’s conflict. More than 1,000 people remain detained to this day, Al-Sarari said, and more than 40 are unaccounted for, their fate and whereabouts unknown.
The UAE government did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department referred questions to the Defense Department, which did not respond to a request for comment.
The identities of many of the people who documented the abuses are not publicly known, due to their fear of retaliation in Yemen. But Al-Sarari appeared in media interviews and was publicly recognized for her involvement. That recognition put a target on her back. She faced a relentless defamation campaign, as well as threats and intimidation attempts, and was implored by her family to stop speaking out. “They blamed me, saying, ‘If you’re not afraid for yourself, fear for your children, fear for your reputation,’” she said.
“I will continue my work; I never regretted what I did despite the loss I incurred.”
Four years later, Al-Sarari’s work continues to have a profound impact on her life. Al-Sarari fled Yemen in 2019 months after her teenage son was killed, in what she believes to be retaliation for her work. She is now hiding in a country she asked The Intercept not to name. From there, she continues to field calls from people back home, mostly mothers, and to investigate reports of abuses.
Even from exile, she prefers to talk about ongoing human rights violations in Yemen rather than about how much exposing them has cost her.
“I will continue my work; I never regretted what I did despite the loss I incurred,” she said. “Not being able to live in Yemen and stay with my family because of my work — it’s my responsibility as a lawyer, as a human rights defender, and as a human being. You have to advocate for these victims because they have no one else to turn to.”
Prisons of No Return
The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen came in response to an insurgency by the Houthis, a Shia rebel movement that in 2014 took over the capital, Sanaa, and forced Saudi-backed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee the country. That political crisis had followed an earlier one, in 2011, when a popular uprising forced Yemen’s longtime, authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to Hadi, his deputy.
Since ousting the president, the Houthis have controlled most of the country’s north, but in 2015 they briefly took over parts of the south, including the port city of Aden, where Al-Sarari was based. They were pushed back with U.S. support by the Saudi-led coalition, who believe the Houthis to be backed by Iran, a key Saudi rival.
Following the campaign, UAE forces established a presence in the south, where they undertook what was ostensibly a counterterror campaign that swept up countless people with no proven connection to terrorist groups. Senior U.S. officials have praised the ways in which the UAE and Saudi Arabia have led counterterrorism operations in the region, with a former deputy CIA director, Michael Morell, hailing the UAE’s role in southern Yemen as a “textbook solution of dealing with terrorist groups” and calling for the intervention to serve as a “model for other countries in the region.” U.S. military officials have taken to refer to the UAE as “Little Sparta.”
With Aden designated as an interim capital for Yemen’s ousted government, the UAE set out to establish a vast security apparatus that existed in parallel to the official one. Rather than rebuilding Yemeni institutions, they trained and armed a system of Yemeni special forces subordinated officially to the exiled president, but in reality to a UAE-led chain of command. The forces, which included the “Security Belts” in Aden and the “Hadrami Elite Forces” in Hadramawt, were soon accused of widespread abuse. UAE forces withdrew from Yemen in 2020 but continued to exert significant influence in the south.
“The UAE formed these militias outside the framework of the state, separately from the law enforcement apparatus at a time when the judicial system was disrupted,” Al-Sarari said. “The police departments were ineffective, and therefore the Security Belts that the UAE set up are the ones that took over security work inside the governorate of Aden. And they are the ones that later carried out the incursions, arrests, and raids.”
As it became known that she was investigating the disappearances, Al-Sarari received 10 to 20 complaints a day about raids and kidnappings. At first, she would turn to the official police and court systems but quickly concluded “there were forces other than the official security forces that were carrying out these arrests,” she said.
So she and her colleagues began to write down the testimonies of the families of the disappeared, gathering details such as the weapons the security forces carried and the words written on their uniforms. The raids, they learned, were systematic and were happening well beyond Aden, in a series of districts where the Houthi insurgency had been pushed back. The reports became so numerous they soon grew into a sprawling spreadsheet.
“There was no official party to report to, so the families resorted to us,” said Al-Sarari, who noted that it was usually the mothers of the disappeared who came to know of her, by word of mouth or through the advocacy of the Abductees’ Mothers Association, a women-led civil society group.
The disappeared men, including several who had resisted both the Houthis’ offensive in the south and the coalition’s intervention, were summarily accused of connections to various terrorist groups, including Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and imprisoned for months in more than a dozen informal detention centers.
Al-Sarari was able to identify the location of several of the sites and interview men who had been held and abused there. Once, she spoke with a man who had been released after being detained along with his brother. At his home, he asked his mother and sister to leave the room before telling Al-Sarari that security forces had held his brother’s head underwater and that he was sure his brother had not survived.
“Any sort of accountability mechanism in a post-conflict Yemen has got to include the counterterrorism abuses that were committed.”
Human rights advocates have long called for an independent process to document widespread and systematic abuses and war crimes committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen. This month, more than 75 civil society groups called on the U.N. General Assembly to establish a new international accountability mechanism for Yemen, after a group of experts tasked by the U.N. with documenting human rights abuses in the country saw its mandate end amid political pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Critics of the Saudi-led coalition have also called for an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
“At some point there’s going to have to be recognition of what has happened in Yemen on all sides, and any sort of accountability mechanism in a post-conflict Yemen has got to include the counterterrorism abuses that were committed,” said Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer who leads the extrajudicial executions project at the U.K.-based group Reprieve, which has worked to amplify Al-Sarari’s advocacy efforts outside Yemen, including by nominating her to two prestigious human rights awards. “That’s why Huda’s investigations are so important, because of what she was able to document in real time and the evidence she was able to gather. That evidence doesn’t go away.”
An Enormous Cost
As she built up a database of extrajudicial detentions between 2015 and 2016, Al-Sarari was getting frustrated that documenting the abuses was not doing much to stop them. So when a journalist with the Associated Press and representatives of various international human rights groups began reaching out, she shared her research with them and coordinated visits with the families of the detained to help expose their plight to the world.
The existence of the prisons was eventually documented in 2017, in separate investigations by the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch which relied extensively on the work of Al-Sarari and other local activists. They were later confirmed by U.N. investigators — the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, or GEE — in 2018.
The reports included the testimonies of former detainees who denounced systematic violence and torture at the hands of UAE-backed Yemeni special forces. Witnesses described being beaten, sexually assaulted, held in crowded shipping containers, and blindfolded for months on end. They said they were caned with wires and given electric shocks. The secret detention sites were located at airports, military bases, private homes, and a nightclub, with some detainees reporting that interrogations also took place onboard ships. The torture included a technique called the “grill,” during which a person would be tied to a spit and spun in a circle of fire, the AP reported. A man who was detained in one of the centers described it as a “no return prison,” according to the HRW report. Another, who visited a child detained in a crowded cell at one of the sites, said that the boy “looked insane.”
Once they became public, the reports were picked up widely. Al-Sarari, who was quoted in one of the AP articles, became the reluctant face of the story. After she gave an interview to Al Jazeera, supporters of the Saudi-led coalition started a ferocious harassment and defamation campaign against her. On social media, she was called a spy, a terrorist sympathizer, a mercenary, and a “whore.” The online abuse sometimes escalated into threats sent to her anonymously. Once, someone broke into her home and stole her phone. Someone smashed her car’s windows.
“My goal was to keep working, but I was terrified,” Al-Sarari said.
Some of her relatives were firmly opposed to her work and accused her of putting her four children at risk. They couldn’t understand why, in a collapsed state where none of the official institutions were functioning, she insisted on carrying out her dangerous work. “They’d say, ‘Do your normal job, but do not do the monitoring, do not speak out,” she recalled. “‘There is no judiciary, there is no prosecution; no organization is working except for you.’”
But that’s exactly why Al-Sarari felt an obligation to keep documenting the abuses. She kept a low profile for a while but eventually resumed her visits to the homes of the disappeared, pretending to go out with friends and hiding under a burqa to protect her identity.
“Anybody who was speaking out on this stuff faced significant risks,” said Kristine Beckerle, a former Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, who said the organization’s 2017 report relied extensively on the work of Al-Sarari and several other people.
“She has truly paid a cost for the work that she’s done,” Beckerle added. “And that’s pretty devastating, because you wish that Yemen was a place where people like Huda and others were rewarded and applauded, rather than threatened or had their lives upended.”
In March 2019, while Al-Sarari was on television discussing a spree of protests against Yemeni special security forces, her 18-year-old son Mohsen was shot while at one of the protests. He was immediately paralyzed and remained in intensive care for a month, before dying of his injuries. Al-Sarari asked local authorities to investigate her son’s killing, but they did not, she said. So she began to investigate herself, and learned from a witness that he had not been struck randomly, as she initially believed, but that he had been shot intentionally, from the front and at a short distance by the brother of a senior member of Aden’s UAE-backed Security Belt. The Intercept could not independently verify her account.
After her son’s killing, Al-Sarari ignored friends’ advice that she flee and instead remained in Yemen, where she continued her work documenting the abuses of the same forces that had been responsible for his death. She left several months later, as the smear campaign against her intensified following international recognition of her work.
The tipping point, she said, came when an anonymous comment online threatened her surviving son. “They should get rid of another one of your kids so that you leave,” it read.
While she doesn’t regret her sacrifice, Al-Sarari says she is deeply disappointed her work didn’t yield stronger action from the international community — and the United States in particular — in response to UAE abuses in southern Yemen. “The U.S. should hold the UAE accountable,” she said.
“They did not take any action that does justice to the victims, especially considering there were American elements along with the Emiratis inside the coalition camp,” she added, referring to U.S. officials. “They did not put any pressure on the coalition to stop committing such crimes.”
In early 2015, when the Houthi insurgents moved south, the U.S. evacuated troops it had deployed to Yemen as part of its long-running fight against Al Qaida. But after the Houthis were pushed back by coalition forces backed by U.S. intelligence and aerial support, the U.S. redeployed a small number of Special Operations troops to aide in UAE-run counterterrorism efforts. In southern Yemen, the U.S. worked with the Emiratis to train and arm Yemeni special forces, to which it has provided tactical and technical support.
The reports Al-Sarari helped bring to light, in fact, also implicated the United States, with former detainees and Yemeni officials saying that they had seen Americans around the detention sites or been questioned by them.
The 2017 AP investigation cited unnamed U.S. officials saying that Americans did participate in the interrogation of detainees at the sites, and that they provided questions for other forces and received transcripts of the interrogations. The officials said that they had been aware of allegations of abuse but that they believed none had taken place when U.S. forces were present. “We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense said at the time.
Men who were released from the prisons reported that detainees would be split between those accused of links to terrorist groups and critics of the coalition and other political activists, said Baraa Shiban, Yemen project coordinator at Reprieve, who works closely with Al-Sarari and personally interviewed some of the former detainees.
“When some of the detained started to get out, they started to say, ‘Actually we were interrogated by American interrogators,’” Shiban told The Intercept. “We were told by a number of prisoners that when they took them in, they would split them and say, ‘These are people of interest to the American interrogators, and these are people of interest to the UAE.’”
The revelations prompted questions about the U.S.’s direct or indirect role in extrajudicial detentions and torture. Beckerle, the Yemen researcher, said that while reports by Western groups brought belated international attention to forcible disappearances and the UAE-run secret prisons, “It wasn’t a secret in southern Yemen that these awful abuses were happening.”
U.S. officials’ position — that they were not aware of the abuses until high-profile reports were published — is “nonsense,” she added. “If they had looked, they would have found it, but they didn’t want to find it.”
A former senior Defense Department official told The Intercept that following public allegations of torture, U.S. officials pushed for representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to be allowed to visit the facilities, and met with them to coordinate such a visit. The former official, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said that the department advised its members against visiting prisons abroad to avoid being held “responsible to do something about conditions.” He added that the ICRC had greater ability to report on prison conditions and “more credibility” with critics.
But the former official also said that he does not believe the UAE were responsible for torture at the sites, adding that torture is “not only immoral it is ineffective.”
“We had a near-constant engagement with the Emirates on the efforts in Yemen,” said the official. “If we were to be aware of human rights abuses, of which torture would be included of course, we would have stopped any support.”
The ICRC made its first visit to “conflict-related” detainees in Aden in 2018. Imene Trabelsi, a spokesperson for the group, wrote in an email to The Intercept that “all details and any concerns or observations we might have are shared as part of a strictly confidential and bilateral dialogue with the authorities in charge.”
The spokesperson added that the ICRC has visited approximately 40 detention sites throughout Yemen, reaching approximately 20,000 mostly civilian detainees. “The ICRC’s access to conflict-related detainees remains limited and continues to be the object of ongoing negotiations with all parties to the conflict,” Trabelsi wrote.
The UAE-run sites in Yemen were reminiscent of the CIA “black sites” where U.S. forces tortured scores of terrorism suspects in the aftermath of 9/11, critics said. While U.S. abuses were amply documented, no U.S. officials or forces have been held accountable for them — a failure that human rights advocates warn has only enabled other countries to pursue similar tactics in the name of counterterrorism.
“The impunity just breeds more impunity.”
If anything has changed since the early days of the U.S. torture program, said Reprieve’s Gibson, it is that the U.S. has distanced itself from abuses committed by other forces it closely cooperates with, building “a layer of plausible deniability into the system.”
“U.S. torture was thought to be historical, and what Huda’s work is showing us is that all the U.S. has done from the first half of the war on terror to the second half is to realize, ‘Hey, actually, it’s much better to outsource the torture, outsource it to our partners, and then we don’t have any accountability, our fingers are not on it,’” Gibson added. “When you don’t grapple with your own accountability for your own actions, and you don’t hold your government to account for the torture it has committed, it’s just going to keep doing that in one way or another. The impunity just breeds more impunity.”