It seems international media and human rights organizations have suddenly “discovered” the crisis in Yemen. After more than two years of horrific war and civilian massacres carried out by the Saudi-led alliance, even CNN has found a conscience, recently publishing The images Saudi Arabia doesn’t want you to see and “Yemen is silent, forgotten… even a purposely forgotten emergency.” Yet images of extremely emaciated Yemeni children starved by the lengthy Saudi blockade on the ravaged third world country were already profuse outside of mainstream media, appearing on Yemeni activist social media accounts with regularity since the start of Saudi air raids in March 2015.
In response to CNN’s article, investigative journalist Ben Norton, who writes for liberal and progressive publications, acknowledged the following:
Trump was elected. When it was Obama overseeing the catastrophic war in Yemen, the US media had little interest. Yes, silent and purposefully forgotten by the US media from March 2015 until January 2017, when Trump entered office. Most Americans had no idea thanks to the media, which paid little attention to Yemen as the US & Saudi destroyed it. Sure, better late than never. But for 2 years the media ignored US carnage in Yemen while peddling Syria propaganda.”
As Norton suggests, the media establishment appeared less interested in digging into America’s role in Yemen under the Obama administration, but the new spotlighting of human rights abuses in “the silent war” comes amidst the historically unprecedented unraveling of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and a general tit for tat airing of the region’s dirty laundry as old allies become enemies.
New torture report exposing Saudi coalition crimes
On Thursday (6/22) the Associated Press published a lengthy investigation entitled, In Yemen’s secret prisons, UAE tortures and US interrogates, alleging that captured suspected al-Qaeda militants, along with civilians swept up in raids by the Saudi-US coalition in war-torn Yemen are being systematically tortured at a series of 18 newly disclosed “black sites.” The report focuses on the role of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close US ally in the Yemeni war, and its methods for extracting information from detainees at the secretive facilities the UAE operates. But the report also suggests some level of CIA and Pentagon involvement in horrific interrogation techniques reminiscent of those found in the Senate CIA torture report partially released in 2014.
Testimonies by Yemeni victims as well as local guards stationed at the sites include allegations of a torture regimen so intense it sometimes leads to death: flogging with wires, suffocation, extreme sensory deprivation, being crammed into tiny shipping containers, being smeared with feces, sexual abuse, and something called ‘the grill,’ in which prisoners are tied to a spit and rotated over fire. The 18 documented detention facilities include locations like converted nightclubs, abandoned shipping ports, former government buildings, coalition military bases, and private mansions. Much of the testimony focuses on Riyan airport. According to the Associated Press investigation:
At one main detention complex at Riyan airport in the southern city of Mukalla, former inmates 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. According to a member of the Hadramawt Elite, a Yemeni security force set up by the UAE, American forces were at times only yards away.”
United Arab Emirates and sectarian aligned media
The UAE is an integral part of the US-backed coalition fighting Shia Houthi rebels, which overran the Yemen’s north in 2014. Saudi airstrikes on the impoverished country, which have killed many thousands of civilians and displaced tens of thousands, have involved the assistance of US intelligence and use of American military hardware. Cholera has recently made a comeback amidst the appalling war-time conditions, and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals have been bombed by the Saudis.
The war in Yemen has been drastically under-reported in US media, which tends to focus almost exclusively on human rights in places like Russia or Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is consistently portrayed as little more than a homicidal maniac bent on massacring his own civilian population. Early in the war the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review produced a short study which attempted to explain, according to its title, Why almost no one’s covering the war in Yemen. Other analysts have since criticized the media and political establishment’s tendency to exaggerate Iran’s presence in Yemen and further willingness to ignore or downplay the clear war crimes of US client regimes in the gulf: while Iran-aligned states and militias are framed as the region’s terrorizers, the Saudi-aligned coalition’s motives are constantly cast as praise-worthy and noble.
Saudi Arabia and its backers fear what they perceive as growing Iranian influence in the region and seek to defend at all costs Yemeni forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Embattled President Hadi famously gave a September 2016 speech before the UN in which he vowed to “extract Yemen from the claws of Iran” – for which he’s received international support. While Saudi bombs rained down on Yemen’s civilian population, the “international community” accused Iran of hindering peace.
GCC skeletons in the closet
But the AP investigation, which was released in conjunction with a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailing dozens of cases wherein civilians and children were “arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused,” constitutes a rare and much belated moment wherein the Saudi coalition in Yemen is spotlighted for war crimes and dirty tactics.
The AP report continues:
We could hear the screams,” said a former detainee held for six months at Riyan airport. “The entire place is gripped by fear. Almost everyone is sick, the rest are near death. Anyone who complains heads directly to the torture chamber.” He was flogged with wires, part of the frequent beatings inflicted by guards against all the detainees. He also said he was inside a metal shipping container when the guards lit a fire underneath to fill it with smoke.”
After so little media scrutiny of human rights abuses inside Yemen since the start of the conflict, the ongoing geopolitical unraveling of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Saudi-Qatari schism will only result in more exposing of dirty secrets and abuses in the region. Growing tensions broke into open hostilities earlier this month, when Saudi Arabia and its junior partners UAE and Bahrain cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar, each side accusing the other of sponsoring terrorism.
The AP and HRW reports, the culmination of investigations which began months ago, come amidst a general airing of Gulf dirty laundry. The oil rich GCC states have always been among the most secretive in the world in terms of internal policy machinations. Their collective oil, weapons, and infrastructure investment interdependency with Britain and the US have generally translated into Western governments, media, and human rights organizations towing the party line on the Gulf sheikhdoms, content to (with a few sporadic exceptions) uncritically present them as some kind of “reform-minded” terror-fighting benevolent monarchies looking out for democratic interests and championing human rights.
Now, in the midst of this new Saudi-Qatari standoff, various factions are looking to expose the others’ politically embarrassing “skeletons in the closet” to Western press and humanitarian groups. For example, a cursory glance of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera’s coverage (the news organization is itself at the center of the spat as Saudi Arabia demands its closure) shows a consistent highlighting of UAE war crimes from the moment torture allegations first surfaced. At the same time Saudi owned Al-Arabiya (which is based in UAE) has prominently featured Houthi torture allegations while being quick to suggest Qatari secret support for the Shia group. Both sides of the GCC split possess multi-billion dollar media industries with a global reach, as well as deep financial ties to Western think tanks and public relations firms.
This general climate and escalating gulf media war is reason enough to take some of the more sensational claims of the torture report with a high degree of skepticism.
New allegations of US outsourcing torture
The AP report has put the CIA and Pentagon on the defensive, and suggests that the secretive and illegal practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ which began after 9/11, may not have entirely come to an end. The Emirati network of secret detention sites in Yemen is alleged to have operated in coordination with US military and intelligence interrogators. US officials would, according to the report, give questions and receive transcripts through Arab military allies conducting interrogation sessions at the black sites. One Yemeni officer working under the Saudi-US coalition witnessed detainees being taken aboard a ship and delivered to American “polygraph experts” and “psychological experts” for secret interrogations.
The UAE government denies the existence of the detention centers or that it tortures during interrogations. US defense officials told AP that while they were aware of allegations, the US military had not found evidence that its allied partners were torturing, adding that the Defense Department “would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights.” The CIA’s statement was: “We have no comment on these specific claims”.
One of more interesting contradictions in the report, not given further explanation, implies some level of continuity between the Bush-era CIA rendition program and the Obama administration, in spite of Obama’s claim to have permanently ended it through a 2009 executive order (signed in his second day in office):
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama disbanded the so-called “black sites.” The UAE network in war-torn Yemen was set up during the Obama administration and continues operating to this day.
“The UAE was one of the countries involved in the CIA’s torture and rendition program,” said Goodman, the NYU law professor. “These reports are hauntingly familiar and potentially devastating in their legal and policy implications.”
On Friday (6/23) leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee called for a fact-finding investigation over potential US involvement at the UAE secret prisons.
While the newfound media outrage evidenced in CNN and others’ long overdue discovery of Yemen’s crisis will be leveraged to embarrass Trump on the US domestic front, the GCC rift and fallout also threatens to further soil the Obama legacy, and perhaps expose the entire shameful underbelly of Saudi coalition actions in Yemen.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.