Content warning: the following piece contains graphic descriptions of torture
On February 13, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a War Powers Resolution that would require the U.S. to end military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This is a historic step towards ending the crisis in Yemen, but in the short term, it will have little effect on mitigating the suffering of Yemeni prisoners.
Recent articles have reported on an “American presence” in Yemeni prisons, showing evidence of Americans playing an active role in leading interrogations. The Daily Beast describes one detainee, Salvatore, who admits that he was a member of Al-Qaeda 20 years ago. In the prison, Salvatore and other detainees were blindfolded during interrogations.
During the interrogations, Salvatore was questioned by two people, one who he describes as having an American accent and giving commands and the other, presumably an Emirati, who asked the questions. Salvatore recalls that John, the presumed American, would whisper something and the Emirati would then question him. Another detainee interviewed by The Daily Beast gave similar accounts—both describe seeing Americans in military uniforms with American flag insignia.
Both detainees also recall the brutal methods of torture, either following interrogations or on their own. Al-Hasani recalls being electrocuted under his armpits and genitals and intense beatings. Both also recalled that other prisoners were sexually assaulted with an object known as the “Opener.” Salvatore, while not subject to this specific method of torture, was threatened with rape after being stripped naked. In addition, a dog, nicknamed Shakira was also used for intimidation. Shakira was claimed to be the size of a donkey and al-Hasani claims that she had torn off the chest and stomach skin of another prisoner.
The Associated Press has also reported on an American presence at a secret prison at the Riyan airport. A former prisoner said that men in civilian clothes, who the Emirati claimed were Americans, would show up for interrogations. Emirati officials would ask questions and translate the answers to the Americans. Officials in the Yemen military also claimed that Americans were conducting interrogations at sea. The prisoners suffered similar methods of torture as Salvatore and al-Hasani: sexual assault and severe beatings.
The Pentagon released a report stating that military personnel has been in Yemen since May 2016 in order to interrogate members of Al-Qaeda, but deny the use of torture: “[The Department of Defense (DoD)] has not developed any independent, credible information indicating that U.S. allies or partners have abused detainees in Yemen.” Meanwhile, Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White claims that DoD has “found no credible evidence to substantiate that the U.S. is participating in any abuse […] We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights.”
Despite these protestations, the firsthand accounts should be investigated, and anyone found complicit in torture must face consequences. As Salvatore remarked upon his eventual release, “Why would they blindfold us? So that we wouldn’t say anything.”
Aisha Saleem is a member of the STAND Communications Task Force. She is a first year at Barnard College in New York and is passionate about human rights and interested in urban studies.