Several US defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the topic, said that American forces do participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies. They said US senior military leaders were aware of allegations of torture at the prisons in Yemen, looked into them, but were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when U.S. forces were present.
“We always adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional conduct,” said chief Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White when presented with AP’s findings. “We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights.”
In a statement, the UAE’s government denied the allegations.
“There are no secret detention centres and no torture of prisoners is done during interrogations.”
Inside war-torn Yemen, however, lawyers and families say nearly 2,000 men have disappeared into the clandestine prisons, a number so high that it has triggered near-weekly protests among families seeking information about missing sons, brothers and fathers.
At one main detention complex at Riyan airport in the southern city of Mukalla, former inmates described being crammed into shipping containers smeared with faeces 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 metres away. He requested anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the matter.
“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.
Like other ex-detainees, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested again. He was interviewed in person in Yemen after his release from detention.
Interviews were conducted with 10 former prisoners, as well as a dozen officials in the Yemeni government, military and security services and nearly 20 relatives of detainees. The chief of Riyan prison, who is well known among families and lawyers as Emirati, did not reply to requests for comment.
Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said the abuses “show that the US hasn’t learned the lesson that cooperating with forces that are torturing detainees and ripping families apart is not an effective way to fight extremist groups.” Human Rights Watch issued a report Thursday documenting torture and forced disappearances at the UAE-run prisons and calling on the Emirates to protect detainees’ rights.
Amnesty International called for a UN-led investigation “into the UAE’s and other parties’ role in setting up this horrific network of torture” and into allegations the US interrogated detainees or received information possibly obtained from torture. “It would be a stretch to believe the US did not know or could not have known that there was a real risk of torture,” said Amnesty’s director of research in the Middle East, Lynn Maalouf.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has praised the UAE as “Little Sparta” for its outsized role in fighting against al-Qaeda.
US forces send questions to the Emirati forces holding the detainees, which then send files and videos with answers, said Yemeni Brigadier-General Farag Salem al-Bahsani, commander of the Mukalla-based 2nd Military District, which American officials confirmed. He also said the United States handed authorities a list of most wanted men, including many who were later arrested.
Al-Bahsani denied detainees were handed over to the Americans and said reports of torture are “exaggerated.”
The network of prisons echoes the secret detention facilities set up by the CIA to interrogate terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 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.
One detaineesaid he was subject to constant beatings by his Yemeni handlers but was interrogated only once.
“I would die and go to hell rather than go back to this prison,” he said. “They wouldn’t treat animals this way. If it was bin Laden, they wouldn’t do this.”