- Associated Press - Thursday, July 2, 2020

CAIRO (AP) - A leading rights group Thursday accused secessionist Yemeni authorities of holding detainees at an overcrowded detention center in the country’s south, exposing them to “serious health risks” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Human Rights Watch said detainees at Aden’s informal detention facility of Bir Ahmed are denied gear such as masks, gloves and sanitizers as well as basic health care services. HRW said the facility is controlled by the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist movement backed by the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE was a key member of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, until they announced they were withdrawing from the conflict in 2019. Since then, they have continued to exert influence through their Yemeni allies. The coalition has been waging war against the Houthis since 2015 on behalf of the U.N.-recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Saudi military involvement in neighboring Yemen came after Shiite Houthis overran the country’s north, including the capital Sanaa, forcing Hadi’s government to flee to the South in 2014.

The war has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and left the country with a depleted health care system, which stands little chance at successfully battling the novel coronavirus.

“The grossly overcrowded conditions and absence of health care at Aden’s Bir Ahmed facility threatens the lives of detainees and facility staff as Covid-19 spreads in Yemen,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “The Southern Transitional Council authorities should urgently address the inhumane detention conditions and release those detained arbitrarily.”

Nizar Haitham, an StC spokesman, denied any links between his group and the detention center. “Prisons and correction centers fall under the control of the interior ministry and the STC has nothing to do with them,” he said.

However, a report by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen released in January said Aden’s Bir Ahmed and Al-Mansoura prisons were under the control of the STC-allied Security Belt Forces. In their report, the U.N. experts accused the southern militias of unlawfully detaining and torturing people in these prisons.

The New York-based rights group quoted relatives of five detainees at Bir Ahmed as saying authorities affiliated with the southern secessionists transferred 44 detainees into a room of only 10 square meters (107 square feet), where four people had been previously held.

The HRW statement cited detainee accounts indicating that one prison guard has already died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and another became “severely ill” with symptoms. Meanwhile, authorities have banned visits since May 1 and deprived detainees of medicine for chronic diseases, the rights organization said.

So far, Yemen has recorded nearly 1,200 virus cases, including 319 deaths. However, the actual tally is believed to be much higher. Last week, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council that the virus is spreading rapidly across Yemen, killing about 25% of confirmed cases - five times the global average.

HRW’s report also quoted the wife of a 37-year-old man detained without trail for over two years as saying the last time she visited her husband he looked pale, with a serious skin disorder and kidney pain, and that he was not receiving medical care.

The HRW statement comes on the heels of a recent report by a local rights group accusing both sides in the country’s civil war of arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture of hundreds of people in unofficial detention centers across Yemen. The Mwatana Organization for Human Rights said it documented over 1,600 cases of arbitrary detentions, 770 cases of forced disappearances, 344 cases of torture and at least 66 deaths in secret prisons run by the warring sides since April 2016.

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