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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Yemen

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Yemen, 30 January 1996, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Republic of Yemen was proclaimed in 1990 following the unification of the former Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen. After a transition period of several years, a "unity" crisis ensued, and in May 1994 civil war broke out, during which the southern part tried to secede. Following the northern-led victory in July of that year, most of the secessionist leadership fled abroad where they remain. Later in 1994 a new postwar governing coalition was formed, composed of the General People's Congress (GPC) and the Yemeni Grouping for Reform (Islaah). The Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), formerly the main party of the south and a previous coalition partner, is now a fractured opposition party.

Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Salih is the President and leader of the GPC. He was elected in 1994 to a 5-year term by the legislature. However, the Constitution provides that henceforth the President will be elected by popular vote from at least two candidates selected by the legislature. The 301-seat House of Representatives was elected in 1993--the first multiparty Parliament elected by popular vote and universal suffrage. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for April 1997. The Parliament is not yet an effective counterweight to executive authority; real political power rests with a few leaders, particularly the President.

The primary state security apparatus is the Political Security Organization (PSO) which reports directly to the President. It is independent of the Ministry of Interior. The Criminal Investigative Department (CID) of the police conducts most criminal investigations and makes most arrests. The Central Security Organization (CSO), a part of the Ministry of Interior, maintains a paramilitary force.

Yemen is a poor country with an emerging market-based economy that is impeded by excessive government regulation and by corruption. Oil is the primary source of foreign exchange, but remittances from some 500,000 Yemenis working abroad (primarily in Saudi Arabia) are also important. Remittances were sharply reduced after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states expelled up to 850,000 Yemeni workers during the Gulf War because of the Government's pro-Iraq position. The Gulf states also suspended most assistance programs, and much Western aid was reduced.

The general human rights situation improved slightly in 1995, although continuing problems include arbitrary arrest and detention, especially of those regarded as "separatists"; infringements on the freedom of the press; and widespread discrimination based on sex, race, disability, and to a lesser extent, religion. A noted intellectual and journalist, Abu Bakr Al-Saqqaf, was briefly abducted and beaten on two occasions by suspected government agents. PSO officers have broad discretion over perceived national security issues and, despite constitutional constraints, routinely detain citizens for questioning, sometimes mistreat detainees, monitor their activities, and search their homes. Prison conditions are poor. There are significant limitations on citizens' ability to effect political change. Female genital mutilation is practiced to an undetermined extent by some families of African origin; it is not prohibited by the authorities.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

Security forces continue to arrest and detain citizens for varying periods of time without charge or notification to concerned families. Many detainees are associated with the YSP and accused of being "separatists." Most such disappearances are temporary, and detainees are released within months.

Hundreds of cases of disappearances dating since the 1970's, implicating the former governments of both north and south Yemen, remain unresolved. In October the bodies of several high-ranking officials in the South Yemen Government were discovered in Aden. The officials were apparently killed in 1986 during a surge of civil strife in Aden and had since been listed as missing.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution is ambiguous on its prohibition of cruel or inhuman punishment. It states that the Government may not impose "illegal" punishments--a formulation that could be interpreted as permitting amputations according to Islamic law, or Shari'a. Moreover, another article in the Constitution asserts that Shari'a "is the source of all legislation." There were no reports of amputations. However, in June a judge sentenced a convicted murderer to multiple amputations and death by crucifixion; that sentence was later changed by the Higher Judiciary Council, which reviews deaths sentences, to death by beheading.

Abu Bakr Al-Saqqaf, a 61-year-old university professor and journalist, was briefly kidnaped and beaten on two occasions, in January and December, by persons suspected of being government agents. Al-Saqqaf has periodically written articles criticizing the Government's policy toward the former South Yemen, which he as described as "internal colonialism." In the second abduction, Al-Saqqaf was thrown into a car near his home in Sanaa by two identified men whom he later said beat him with sticks and an electric prod. According to Al-Saqqaf's account, the assailants shouted at him to stop writing as they beat him. Photos of Al-Saqqaf's battered face and torso appeared in a December issue of the English-language Yemen Times (also see Section 2.a.). The Government claims to be investigating the second abduction, but no suspects have been charged.

The Government tightly controls access to detention facilities. Nonetheless, it permits most impartial observers to visit prisoners and detainees. Although there is no evidence of the use of torture in detention facilities, arresting authorities are known to use force during interrogations, especially of those arrested for violent crimes. There were no reports of torture of persons arrested for political offenses. Authorities still use leg-irons and shackles, and flogging is still occasionally inflicted as punishment for minor crimes.

Prison conditions do not meet internationally recognized minimum standards. Prisons are overcrowded, sanitary conditions poor, and food and health care inadequate. Inmates must depend on relatives for food and medicine. Prison authorities and guards often exact money from prisoners and even refuse to release prisoners until family members pay a bribe. Conditions are equally bad in women's prisons, where children are likely to be incarcerated along with their mothers. There have been reports that some female prisoners have been raped by prison guards.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

According to the law, detainees must be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest or released. The judge or prosecuting attorney must inform the accused of the basis for the arrest and decide whether detention is required. In no case may a detainee be held longer than 7 days without a court order. Despite these constitutional and other legal provisions, arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charge are common practices.

Detainees have the right to inform their families of their arrests and may decline to answer questions without an attorney present. There are also provisions for bail. In practice, many authorities respect these rights only if bribed.

In cases where a criminal suspect is at large, security forces sometimes detain a relative while the suspect is being sought.

The detention may continue while the concerned families negotiate compensation for the alleged wrongdoing.

The Government has failed to ensure that detainees and prisoners are incarcerated in authorized detention facilities. The Ministry of Interior reportedly operates extrajudicial detention facilities. Unauthorized prisons also exist in "tribal" areas, where the Central Government has limited authority. Some detainees are reportedly held in an undetermined number of unauthorized prisons.

Thousands of people have been imprisoned for years without documentation concerning their trials or sentences. In an attempt to redress this problem, the Committee to Investigate the Truth, under the leadership of the head of the Yemeni Human Rights Organization, and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Interior, has begun investigating individual complaints of wrongful imprisonment. The Committee has the authority to order the release of individuals imprisoned illegally, i.e., without charge or trial.

Approximately 100 to 200 military officers, suspected of having separatist sympathies, were imprisoned following the 1994 civil war. All but about a dozen senior commanders have been released.

At the end of the civil war, the President pardoned nearly all who fought against the Central Government, including military personnel and most leaders of the unrecognized, secessionist Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY). The Government denied this amnesty to only the 16 most senior leaders of the DRY, who fled abroad. Although they were technically not forced into exile, they are subject to arrest if they return. The Government is negotiating with several of the 16 for their eventual return without trial.

Some tribes, seeking to bring their concerns to the attention of the Government, kidnap and hold hostages. Some victims have been foreign workers or tourists. Foreign victims are rarely injured. The authorities have succeeded in obtaining the fairly quick release of foreign hostages.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary is not fully independent, even though the Constitution provides for an "autonomous" judiciary and "independent judges." Many litigants maintain that a judge's social ties and susceptibility to bribery sometimes have greater influence on the verdict than the law or facts of the case. Others maintain that judges appointed since mid-1994 are poorly trained, and that those closely associated with the Government often render decisions favorable to it.

There are two types of courts: Islamic law or Shari'a courts, which try criminal cases and adjudicate civil disputes (such as divorce and inheritance cases), and commercial courts. There are no jury trials under Shari'a. Criminal cases are adjudicated by a judge who plays an active role in questioning witnesses and the accused. Defense attorneys are allowed to counsel their clients, address the court and examine witnesses. Defendants, including those in commerical courts, have the right to appeal their sentences. Trials are public. However, both Shari'a and commercial courts may conduct closed sessions "for reasons of public security or morals." Foreign litigants in commercial disputes have complained of biased rulings.

Female judges who worked in the south prior to the civil war have been reappointed to positions. There are no female judges in the north.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Despite constitutional provisions against government interference with privacy, security forces routinely search homes and private offices, monitor telephones, read personal mail, and otherwise intrude into personal matters for alleged security reasons. Such activities are conducted without legally issued warrants or judicial supervision. Security forces regularly monitor telephone conversations and have interfered with the telephone service of government critics and opponents.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution restricts the freedom of speech and press "within the limits of the law." Although many citizens are uninhibited in their discussions of domestic and foreign policies, some are cautious, believing that they may be harassed for publicly expressed criticisms of the Government.

From 1990 until mid-1994, there was relative freedom of the press in Yemen. During the 1994 civil war, the Government closed papers affiliated with the YSP, the main party in southern Yemen, for expressing separatist views. Wartime difficulties restricted the production of many other papers. After the war, the Government allowed some YSP-affiliated publications to resume publishing.

The Ministry of Information influences the media by its ownership of the printing presses, subsidies to certain newspapers, and its ownership of the television and radio companies. The Government selects the items to be covered in news broadcasts, and does not permit reporting critical of the Government. Even televised debates in the Parliament are edited to delete the most biting commentary on the Government.

Although newspapers are allowed to criticize the Government, journalists sometimes censor themselves, especially when writing on such sensitive issues as the 1994 civil war, relations with Saudi Arabia, or government corruption. The penalties for exceeding these self-imposed limits can be arrest for slander or libel, dismissal from employment, or extralegal harassment. The Ministry of Information has taken most opposition newspapers to court at least once in the last year. Most of these cases are perceived to be a form of harassment.

From January to April, the Government suspended publication of the independent, Aden-based weekly Al-Ayyam for publishing articles critical of government policies in the south. Abu Bakr Al-Saqqaf, a writer of one of these articles, was kidnaped by suspected government agents (see Section 1.c.). At year's end, the paper was allowed to publish only in Sanaa. The writer was dismissed from his position at the University of Sanaa, but was later reinstated by a court order.

In July Al-Shura, an outspoken opposition newspaper affiliated with the Union of Popular Forces, was suspended from publication by the Minister of Legal Affairs as part of a larger ruling involving the party (see Section 3).

The independent English-language weekly, the Yemen Times, has frequently criticized the Government. The management has been periodically subjected to anonymous threats of violence, and government authorities have interfered with the paper's operations.

On several occasions, the Ministry of Information prohibited the publication of the Nasserist paper, Al-Wahdawi, and has brought several court cases against the paper. The Ministry has also been involved in legal disputes with the YSP-owned newspaper, Al-Thawri, since the end of the civil war. Several southern journalists have been arrested in the past year for writings related to the civil war as well as for alleged secessionist sympathies.

Customs officials confiscate foreign publications regarded as pornographic or objectionable because of religious or political content. The Ministry of Information has periodically prevented the distribution of certain issues of Al-Hayat, the Arabic international daily, and other periodicals which report on sensitive policy issues.

Academic freedom is impinged by the presence of security officials on university campuses and at most intellectual forums. Government informers monitor the activities of professors and students. The authorities review prospective university professors and administrators for their political acceptability before they are hired. During the year, the Government leaked a list of professors from Sanaa University who were to be dismissed on political grounds, but at year's end took no steps to prevent them from teaching.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Citizens exercise their right to demonstrate peacefully. Associations must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, a usually routine matter.

In July security forces dispersed a convention of the Union of Popular Forces, headed by Ibrahim Al-Wazir. The Government claims that the Union of Popular Forces is not a legal party and that the convention was an illegal gathering. It banned the party's newspaper, Al-Shura.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the state religion, and there are restrictions on the practice of other religions. Virtually all citizens are Muslims, either of the Zaydi branch of Shi'a Islam or the Shafe'ei branch of Sunni Islam. There are also some Ismailis in the north. Private Islamic organizations may maintain ties to pan-Islamic organizations and operate schools, but the Government monitors their activities.

Most of the once sizable Jewish population has emigrated; fewer than 500 remain. Jewish religious services are held in private homes. Previous restrictions on Jews obtaining passports and having contact with foreign Jewish groups have been abolished.

Most Christians are foreign residents, except for a few families of Indian origin in Aden. There are several churches and Hindu temples in Aden, but no non-Muslim places of worship in the former north Yemen. Church services are regularly held.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government does not obstruct domestic travel, although the army and security forces maintain checkpoints on major roads. Likewise, the Government does not obstruct foreign travel or the right to emigrate and return. In recent years, it has removed bureaucratic obstacles that prevented most Jews from traveling abroad. Women must obtain permission from a male relative before applying for a passport. The Constitution prohibits the extradition of a citizen to any country.

The Government cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in assisting refugees arriving from east Africa. During the year, the Government reportedly deported several hundred Somali refugees back to Somalia. The practice was discontinued after the intervention of the UNHCR and the diplomatic community.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

International observers judged as generally free and fair the last parliamentary election which was held in 1993. Although the Government is accountable to the Parliament, there are significant limitations on the ability of the people to effect political change. To date, the Parliament is not an effective counterweight to executive authority; it does little more than debate issues. Decisionmaking and real political power still rests in the hands of relatively few leaders, particularly the President.

The President has the authority to introduce legislation and promulgate laws by decree when Parliament is not in session. Decrees must be approved by Parliament 30 days after reconvening. In theory, if a decree is not approved, it does not become law; in practice, a decree remains in effect even if not approved. The President appoints the Prime Minister, who forms the Government. The Cabinet comprises 24 ministers, with the majority of ministers presently coming from the GPC and the remainder from Islaah.

In some governorates, tribal leaders retain considerable discretion in the interpretation and enforcement of the law. Central government authority in these areas is often weak.

There is a functioning multiparty system. All parties must be registered in accordance with the Political Parties Law of 1991, which stipulates that each party must have 75 founders and 2,500 members. This law had not been enforced until September when the President decreed that the law would be implemented by the end of the year. Strict enforcement may have the effect of severely reducing the number of small parties.

The Constitution prohibits the establishment of parties that are contrary to Islam, or oppose the goals of the Yemeni revolution, or violate Yemen's international commitments. The Government provides financial support to all parties represented in Parliament. The parties are permitted to publish their own newspapers.

Although women may vote and hold office, these rights are limited by cultural and religious customs. Only 2 women have been elected to the 301-member Parliament, and few hold senior leadership positions in the Government or political parties.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Yemeni Human Rights Organization (YHRO) is the best known local nongovernmental human rights group. It is headquartered in Sanaa with branches in seven other cities. The Government does not overtly restrict its activities and is cooperating with it to release prisoners in prolonged detention without trial.

Another group, the Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Liberties and Human Rights, is based in Aden. After the 1994 civil war, the Government dissolved it because it was purportedly regarded as a "separatist" organization. It has resumed operation and issued a report on the 1994 civil war and human rights. There is a Human Rights Committee in Parliament, which does little of significance.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch observe Yemen closely. There is an International Committee of the Red Cross representative resident in Yemen. The Government has given these groups relatively broad access to government officials, records, refugee camps, and prisons.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

Prior to 1994, the Constitution stated that "no discrimination shall be practiced due to sex, color, racial origin, language, occupation, social status, or religious beliefs." However, as amended in 1994, the Constitution now states that "all citizens are equal in general rights and duties ..." The change has been interpreted as an attempt to weaken previous constitutional guarantees of equality, especially for women.


Although some spousal abuse occurs, it is undocumented and its incidence seems to be relatively light. In Yemen's traditional society, an abused woman would be expected to take her complaints to a male relative (rather than the authorities) who should intercede on her behalf or provide her short-term sanctuary if required.

Women face significant restrictions imposed by law, social custom and religion. Men are permitted to take as many as four wives, though few do so for economic reasons. The practice of dowry payments is widespread, despite efforts to limit the size of such payments. Husbands may divorce wives without justifying their action in court. Following a divorce, the family home and children (who are older than a certain age) are often awarded to the husband. Women also have the right to divorce, in accordance with the precepts of Shari'a. Women seeking to travel abroad must obtain permission from their husbands or fathers and are expected to be accompanied by male relatives.

Islamic law permits a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but no Muslim woman may marry outside of Islam. Married women do not have the right to confer citizenship on their foreign-born spouses; they may, however, confer citizenship on children born in Yemen of foreign-born fathers.

An estimated 80 percent of women are illiterate, compared to approximately 35 percent of men. In general, women in the south are better educated and have had somewhat greater employment opportunities. Since the 1994 civil war, however, the number of working women in the south appears to have declined, in part due to the stagnant economy, but also because of increasing cultural pressure from the north. Nevertheless, female judges, magistrates, and prosecutors in southern governorates have been reappointed.

The Government has established a women's association to promote female education and civic responsibilities, and a nongovernmental organization has also been established for the same purpose.


While the Government has asserted its commitment to protecting children's rights, it lacks the resources necessary to ensure adequate health care, education, and welfare services for children.

Child marriage is common, especially in rural areas. The median marrying age for girls is 15, but marriages at 13 are not unusual.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, is practiced by some Yemenis of African origin living mainly in the coastal areas. It is not known to exist among the majority Zaydi and Shafe'ei populations. There is no available information on its extent. While some government health workers actively discourage the practice, the Government has not passed legislation outlawing it.

People with Disabilities

There are distinct social prejudices against persons with mental and physical disabilities. The disabled often face discrimination in education and employment. The Government has not enacted legislation or otherwise mandated accessibility for the disabled, nor provided special clinics or schools for them. Mentally ill patients, particularly those who commit crimes, are imprisoned and even shackled when there is no one else to care for them. There is a charity project to construct separate detention facilities for mentally disabled prisoners.

Religious Minorities

Apart from a small but undetermined number of Christians and Hindus in Aden, and a few Baha'is in the north, Jews are the only indigenous religious minority. Their numbers have diminished dramatically due to voluntary emigration. Jews are traditionally restricted to living in one section of a city or village and are often confined to a limited choice of employment, usually farming or handicrafts. Jews may, and do, own real property.

Christian clergy who minister to the foreign community (see Section 1.c.) are employed in teaching, social services, and health care. Following the 1994 civil war, suspected Islamic extremists looted and vandalized Christian, Hindu, and even Islamic sites in Aden. There have also been incidents at Islamic sites in the north. Government forces have taken steps to ensure security at these places of worship.

A hospital in Jibla operated by the Baptist Church has experienced occasional threats and harassment from local Islamic extremists who fear the hospital may be used to spread Christianity. Local religious extremists have reportedly harassed the hospital's Muslim employees. In August, in response to the hospital's request, a court ordered the removal from hospital property of locally-owned "shops" that were suspected of fencing hospital supplies. Subsequently, a mob of young males marched on the hospital, fired shots at government security guards, and threw an explosive device. Security forces restored order, and community leaders later condemned the attack and expressed their support for the hospital and its staff.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Yemenis with a non-Yemeni parent, called "Muwalladin," may face discrimination in employment and in other areas. Persons seeking employment at Sanaa University or admission to the military academy must by law demonstrate that they have two Yemeni parents. Nonetheless, many senior government officials, including members of Parliament and ministers, have only one Yemeni parent. In some cases, naturalization of the non-Yemeni parent is sufficient to overcome the "two-Yemeni-parent" requirement.

A small group believed to be descendants of ancient Ethiopian occupiers of Yemen, who were later enslaved, are considered the lowest social class. Known as the "akhdam" (servants), they live in squalor and endure persistent social discrimination.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

In March the Parliament passed a new labor law to replace the preunification legislation that had governed labor relations. This law provides workers with the right to strike and equal labor rights for women, and it renews the freedom of workers to associate. The Labor Law does not stipulate a minimum membership for unions, nor does it limit them to a specific enterprise or firm. Thus, Yemenis may now associate by profession or trade.

The Yemeni Confederation of Labor Unions, affiliated with the Confederation of Arab Trade Unions and the formerly Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions, remains the sole national umbrella organization. Observers suggest that the Government likely would not tolerate the establishment of an alternative labor federation unless it believed it to be in its best interests.

By law civil servants and public sector workers, and some categories of farm workers, may not join unions. Only the General Assembly of the Yemeni Confederation of Labor Unions may dissolve unions.

No strikes occurred in 1995.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The new Labor Law provides workers with the right to organize and bargain collectively. All collective bargaining agreements must be deposited with and reviewed by the Ministry of Labor; such agreements exist. Unions may negotiate wage settlements for their members and can resort to strikes or other actions to achieve their demands.

The law protects employees from antiunion discrimination. Employers do not have the right to dismiss an employee for union activities. Employees may appeal cases of antiunion discrimination to the Ministry of Labor. Employees may also take a case to the labor courts, which are often favorably disposed toward workers especially if the employer is a foreign company.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. There are no reports of its practice.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Child labor is common, especially in rural areas. Even in urban areas, children may be observed working in stores, workshops, selling goods on the streets, and begging. The established minimum age for employment is 15 in the private sector and 18 in the public sector. By special permit, children age 12 to 15 may work. The Government rarely enforces these provisions, especially in rural and remote areas.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Law sets a monthly and daily minimum wage. The minimum wage provides a worker and family with only a very modest standard of living. Inflation has substantially eroded wages during the past few years.

The law specifies a 40-hour workweek with a maximum 8-hour workday, but many workshops and stores operate 10- to 12-hour shifts without penalty. The workweek for government employees is 35 hours, 6 hours per day, Saturday through Wednesday, and 5 hours on Thursday.

Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations. The Ministry of Labor now has the responsibility for regulating workplace health and safety conditions, but enforcement remains lax. Some foreign-owned companies implement higher health, safety, and environmental standards than required in Yemen.

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