U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Yemen

    The Republic of Yemen was proclaimed in 1990 following the unification of the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), or North Yemen, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), or South Yemen. After a relatively calm transition period of several years, a "unity" crisis ensued, and in May a civil war broke out during which the southern part seceded. By early July, unionist military forces prevailed against southern-based secessionists. After the fighting, most of the secessionist leadership fled abroad. Since then, the main party of the south, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), elected a new leadership and is now an opposition party. The governing coalition is composed of the General People's Congress (GPC) and the Islamic Yemeni Grouping for Reform (Islaah). The Government adopted a new Constitution in September, replacing the 1991 Constitution. The President is Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former President of the Yemen Arab Republic and leader of the GPC. He was elected to a 5-year term in 1994 by the legislature, but the Constitution provides that henceforth the President will be elected in a popular vote from 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. Tribal leaders control many parts of the country where central authority is weak. 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. PSO officers have broad discretion over perceived national security issues and, despite constitutional constraints, routinely detain citizens for questioning, frequently mistreat them, monitor their activities, and search their homes. The Criminal Investigative Department (CID) of the police conducts most arrests. The Central Security Organization (CSO), a part of the Ministry of the Interior, maintains a paramilitary force. Yemen is a poor country in which oil and agriculture dominate the economy. Oil is the primary source of foreign exchange, but remittances from some 500,000 Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia are also important. The level of remittances was 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 support for Iraq. Most of the Gulf states have also suspended foreign assistance programs, and much Western aid has been reduced. While the Government remains in principle committed to democratic reform, some serious human rights abuses took place before, during, and after the civil war. Major problems include arbitrary arrest and detention, especially of those regarded as "separatists"; torture; infringements on the freedom of the press; and widespread discrimination based on sex, race, and religion.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Before and during the civil war, there were widespread reports that government and southern Yemeni forces, including members of the YSP, committed extrajudicial killings of both civilians and military personnel. None of the allegations has been substantiated.

b. Disappearance

As in previous years, many citizens reportedly disappeared following their arrests by the security forces or regular army units. Most disappearances were temporary and were members of the YSP. Central government forces released the vast majority of these persons after varying periods of detention. Hundreds of cases of disappearances dating from the 1970's, implicating the governments of both North and South Yemen, remain unresolved. Included among these cases are some 200 to 300 South Yemenis who disappeared in the former PDRY during an internal conflict in 1986. The Government has never established a mechanism to resolve such cases.

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

The Constitution is ambiguous on its prohibition of cruel or inhuman punishments. It states that the Government may not impose "illegal" punishments--a formulation that may be interpreted as permitting amputations according to Islamic law, or Shar'ia. Another article asserts that Shar'ia is "the source of all legislation."There is no indication that the Government has carried out amputations. However, there have been undocumented reports that prison and other officials have carried out such acts extrajudicially. The Government tightly controls access to detention facilities. Nonetheless, it permits most impartial observers to visit prisoners and detainees with some exceptions. Although there is no evidence that the authorities torture detainees arrested for common felonies, on occasion they may resort to force, or the threat of force, to extract information. The press continues to report stories of alleged torture and mistreatment of detainees and prisoners. The use of torture by central government forces is believed to exist but is uncommon. There were undocumented reports that both sides tortured military personnel captured during the civil war. One international human rights group reported that soldiers tied up some prisoners and hung them from a rod with bound hands and feet. However, there were credible reports that central government forces inhumanely treated northern military officers suspected of secessionist sympathies. There were also reports that the authorities inhumanely treated prisoners held in "secret" military prisons (see Section 1.d.). Prison conditions do not meet internationally recognized minimum standards. Prisons are overcrowded, sanitary conditions are poor, and rations and health care inadequate. Inmates depend on relatives to provide food and medicines. The authorities still use leg irons and shackles, and the law permits flogging. Many cases of reported flogging occurred in 1992 and 1993; the practice likely continued in 1994. Shortly after the war, when Aden, the former capital of the PDRY, was occupied by troops and "Islamic extremists," persons were often flogged in public, without trial, for offenses such as drinking alcohol or walking with a member of the opposite sex. These floggings were evidently carried out as extrajudicial punishments for those deemed to have transgressed Islamic law. The practice was discontinued after the Government restored law and order.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Despite constitutional and other legal provisions, there continue to be reports of arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charge. According to the Constitution, detainees must be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest or released. The judge or district attorney must inform the accused of the basis for the arrest and decide whether or not to hold the accused. In no case may a detainee be held longer than 7 days without a court order. Detainees have the right to inform their families of their arrests and may decline to answer questions during interrogation without an attorney present. In practice, many authorities respect these rights only if bribed. There is a system of bail. Some detainees are reportedly held in an undetermined number of unauthorized or secret locations. Attorneys and other judicial authorities have complained of the continued existence of extrajudicial prisons maintained by certain ministries, notably the Ministry of Interior. The Government has failed to ensure that detainees and prisoners are incarcerated in authorized detention facilities. Army bases are not believed to be used as detention facilities for civilian prisoners. Moreover, some unauthorized prisons are believed to exist in "tribal" areas. Approximately 100 to 200 northern military officers suspected of having separatist sympathies during the civil war are believed to be held under inhumane conditions in secret military prisons. However, the existence of such prisons has not been confirmed. In certain cases where a suspect is at large, the security forces may detain one of the suspect's relatives while the suspect is sought and the families of the suspect and victim negotiate compensation for the alleged wrongdoing. As many as 4,000 inmates, most of whom are accused or convicted felons, are imprisoned without documentation concerning their sentences or reasons for their arrest. Most were moved to central prisons from outlying jails following unification in 1990. Written records for southern prisoners were in most cases lost or destroyed in the civil war or the subsequent looting. The authorities in the north reportedly never kept records. Many inmates who are released during the customary annual amnesty are believed to be among those without any written record of their arrest or sentence. At the end of the civil war, the President pardoned all persons who fought against the central Government. The amnesty extended to all military personnel and most of the leaders of the unrecognized, secessionist Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY), except for the DRY's 16 most senior leaders who fled abroad. Although they were technically not forced into exile, they would presumably be subject to arrest if they returned. President Saleh stated that the cases of some of the 16 would be reconsidered if they renounce their separatist ambitions. Many thousands of Yemenis returned from abroad to take advantage of the amnesty.

e. Denial of a Fair Trial

From 1990 until the outbreak of the civil war, the courts in northern and southern Yemen functioned as before unification: they applied two distinct bodies of law but shared a common Supreme Court. After the civil war, the Government merged the two judiciaries. There are two types of courts: Islamic law or Shar'ia courts, which try criminal cases and adjudicate issues of personal status, such as divorce and inheritance; and the commercial courts. There are no jury trials in the Shar'ia system. Cases are adjudicated by a judge who plays an active role in questioning witnesses, but defense attorneys are allowed to advise their clients, address the court, and examine witnesses. Defendants have the right to appeal their sentences. Trials are public. In commercial courts, defendants also enjoy the right of appeal, and court sessions are generally open to the public. However, both the Shar'ia and the commercial courts may conduct closed sessions "for reasons of public security or morals." Foreign litigants in commercial disputes have complained of biased rulings. The judiciary is not fully independent. Many litigants maintain that a judge's tribal ties, and even bribery, sometimes have greater influence on the verdict than the the law or facts. Others maintain that judges closely associated with the Government often render decisions favorable to it. The President denies that the Government detains political prisoners. However, an estimated 100 to 200 military officers, allegedly sympathetic to the breakaway DRY, are reportedly detained in secret military prisons (see Section l.d.).

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

Despite constitutional provisions against such interference, security forces routinely search homes, monitor telephones, read personal mail, and otherwise intrude into personal matters for alleged security considerations. Such activities are conducted without warrants issued by legal authorities or other judicial supervision. Many citizens believe that the security forces monitor telephone conversations.

g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts

Combatants on both sides in the civil war conducted a number of abuses against unarmed civilians. Such practices included the use of Scud missiles against targets in populated areas; armed conflict conducted near refugees; and the shelling of urban areas, particularly Aden. In some instances, military forces appeared to seek refuge in densely populated areas, threatening civilians often caught in the crossfire, although most tank battles took place in rural areas. Vast numbers of mines, which threaten the lives of civilians in the south, were left behind and hamper efforts to restore water and electricity to Aden. In one instance in May, government army units surrounded the YSP headquarters building in Sanaa. According to eyewitnesses, tanks were used to overpower a small contingent of YSP guards, who fought back determinedly. The army reportedly may not have given the guards a sufficient opportunity to surrender before opening fire. Although there were no known fatalities, the destruction of the property exceeded necessity. The Government has not undertaken any investigation of the incident. Human rights groups and others noted extensive looting, vandalism, and destruction not caused during the prosecution of the war. While military forces may not have been directly implicated in much of the vandalism, some observers maintain that they may have been able to prevent it. They also claim that the looting and vandalism may have exceeded war-related damage in some urban areas of the south. After the war, the Central Government restored order in the south, and the incidence of political violence aimed at the YSP decreased.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution restricts the freedoms of speech and press "within the limits of the law." Although many citizens are uninhibited in their dicussions of domestic and foreign policies, some are cautious, believing that they may be harassed for publicly expressed criticisms of the Government. From 1990 until the the outbreak of the civil war, the press operated freely. During that period, nearly 100 newspapers appeared, reflecting a broad spectrum of political views. The Government licenses all newspapers, but not journalists. However, after war broke out, it shut down all papers associated with the YSP, as well as those which expressed separatist sympathies. After the war, the Government began to ease some, but not all, restraints on the press. To avoid possible government harassment, journalists censor themselves, especially when writing about the civil war, relations with Saudi Arabia, and corruption of senior officials. The penalty for exceeding such self-imposed limits would likely be arrest for slander or libel. The Ministry of Information influences the media by its ownership of the printing presses, subsidies to certain newspapers, and ownership of the radio and television companies. The Government censors radio and television news broadcasts which never contain reports critical of it. However, the two television channels regularly broadcast parliamentary debates in which Members of Parliament sometimes voice criticisms. Customs officials are authorized to confiscate any imported material regarded as pornographic or objectionable because of religious or political content. Before the civil war, the Government occasionally prohibited foreign publications critical of the Government. After the war, the Government banned for various lengths of time the importation of newspapers owned by Saudi investors--notably Sharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East) and Al-Hayat (Life). Publications critical of the Government were allowed again, but certain Saudi-backed papers did not appear until much later. A court case was recently decided in favor of the newspaper, Al Shoura, which the Government charged with slander against the President, sowing seeds of sectarianism, and editorial impropriety. The trial was public and received wide coverage. The judge dismissed all charges and ordered the Government to pay the newspaper's legal fees and costs. In early January 1995, the Government reportedly suspended publication of the Aden-based newspaper, Al-Ayyam, for publishing articles critical of government policy in the south. The writer, Abu Bakr Al-Saqqaf, a noted dissident, was reportedly kidnaped and beaten by suspected government agents. University professors and administrators require security clearances before they are hired. Security officials are present on the Sanaa University campus and informers monitor the activities of students and professors.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Citizens have a right to demonstrate peacefully and they exercise it. However, during the civil war, the Government strictly curtailed this right. Associations must obtain a license from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, but licensing is usually routine.

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 closely monitors their activities. Most of the once sizable Jewish population has emigrated; fewer than 500 remain. Jewish religious services are held in private homes. In recent years, the Government removed unwritten obstacles which had prevented Jews from obtaining passports and hindered their contact with foreign Jewish groups. Most Christians are foreign residents, except for a few Christian 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. After the civil war, suspected Islamic extremists looted and vandalized the Anglican Church in Aden, desecrated others, looted Hindu temples, and even desecrated some Islamic shrines regarded by the extremists as sacrilegious. Damage to the Anglican church was estimated at $70,000 to $80,000. Government forces have since reestablished security around these places of worship. The Christian clergy minister to the foreign community and are employed in teaching, social services, and health care. The Government does not allow them to proselytize Muslims. By religious convention, Muslims may not convert to other religions. A religiously motivated suit was brought against a hospital in Jibla operated by the Baptist Church, charging it with defamation of Islam and proselytization. Although the court dismissed the case because the plaintiffs could not substantiate their charges and for procedural reasons, Islaah Party membersthe continue to harass the Yemeni employees of the hospital.

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

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

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

International observers judged as generally as free and fair the 1993 parliamentary election. Although the Government is accountable to the Parliament, there are significant limitations on the ability of the people to affect change within their society. To date the Parliament is not an effective counterweight to executive authority; it has done little more than debate issues. Decisionmaking is not transparent, 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 within 30 days after reconvening. In theory, if the decree is not approved, it does not become law; in practice, very little happens if the decree is not approved. The President appoints the Prime Minister who forms the Government. The Cabinet is comprised of 27 ministers, with 16 ministers from the GPC, 9 from Islaah, and 2 independents. In northern and southern governorates, tribal leaders retain considerable discretion in the interpretation and enforcement of the law. Central government authority in these areas is often weak. Some observers maintain that tribalism may promote accountable government in some ways by dramatically drawing the Government's attention to the grievances of the people. There is a functioning multiparty system. All parties must register with the Government, but such registration is routinely granted. The Constitution prohibits the establishment of parties that are contrary to Islam or oppose the goals of the Yemeni revolution or violate Yemeni international commitments. By law the Government must give financial support to all recognized parties, and parties are permitted to establish their own newspapers. Many of the approximately 50 political parties are very small and exist on paper only. The three largest are the GPC, the Islaah Party, and the YSP. The opposition is weak and divided among miniparties, except for the YSP which, even in its weakened state, still has weight, especially in the South. Although women may vote and hold office, these rights are limited by cultural and religious custom. 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 is the only local nongovernmental human rights group. It is headquartered in Sanaa with branches in seven other cities. The Government does not overtly restrict its activities. Another group, the Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Liberties and Human Rights, was based in Aden. After the civil war, the Government dissolved it because it was purportedly regarded as a "separatist" organization. There is a human rights committee in Parliament, which has done little of significance aside from holding meetings and hosting an international childrens rights conference in 1993. Amnesty International and Middle East Watch observe Yemen closely, especially in the wake of the civil war. 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.


Women face significant restrictions imposed by law and social custom. Men are permitted to take as many as four wives, provided they treat their wives equally. Husbands may divorce wives without justifying their actions before a court and, in the case of divorce, both the family home and children are often awarded to the husband. Women also have the right to divorce their husbands in accordance with precepts of Shar'ia. Islamic law permits a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but no Muslim woman may marry outside of Islam. Social pressure often forces women to defer to the guidance of male relatives if they wish to travel abroad. Married women do not have the right to confer citizenship on their foreign-born spouses; but they may confer citizenship on children born in Yemen of foreign-born fathers. The practice of dowry payments is widespread, despite government efforts to limit the size of such payments. An estimated 80 percent of women are illiterate, compared to 40 to 50 percent of men. In general, women in Aden are better educated and have somewhat greater employment opportunities than women in northern Yemen. Before the civil war, women in Aden worked in private business and at mid-level government jobs. Several women worked as lawyers and judges. After the civil war, the number of working women in Aden appears to have declined. Many observers say this is due to the increasing "Islamization" of Adeni society, although there is no concrete evidence of this. Although spousal abuse is known to occur, reliable statistics on its extent are unavailable, and there is little public discussion of this matter. In theory, abused women have the right to sue their husbands, but few do so. According to social tradition, battered women are pressured to keep spousal violence problems within the family. They may seek help and mediation from male relatives to halt abuse. 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.


The Government's commitment to protecting childrens' rights was adversely affected by the political crisis and the civil war. Moreover, the Government lacks the resources necessary to ensure adequate health, education, and welfare services for children. Child marriage is still common in rural areas. Female genital mutilation is practiced by Yemenis of African origin in the coastal areas along the Red and Arabian seas. There is no available information on the extent of the practice. While some government health workers discourage female genital mutilation, the Government has not passed any legislation or nor made any other effort to eradicate the practice.

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 they have two Yemeni parents. Nonethless, 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.

Religious Minorities

Apart from a small but undetermined number of Christians and Hindus in Aden and a small number of Baha'is in the north, Jews are the only indigenous religious minority. 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.

People with Disabilities

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 occasionally imprisoned and shackled when there is no one else to care for them. There are distinct social prejudices against persons with mental and physical handicaps. The disabled often face discrimination in education and employment.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have the right of association as stipulated by law. Before the outbreak of the civil war, labor unions in the north and south were closely controlled by the respective ruling parties. With the end of the war, the Labor Code of the former North Yemen has become the law in fact. The Government has not yet enacted a formal labor code. Under the law, a union may be set up by 100 or more workers upon application to and approval by the Government. If a union does not apply for or is not given governmental approval, it is illegal. The Code prescribes a single union system with one union committee, or union local, for each enterprise; one general union for an economic sector, and one national umbrella organization, Yemeni Confederation of Labor Unions (YCLU), which was established in 1990 at the time of the unification. The YCLU is affiliated with the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions and the formerly Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions. Experts 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. The President is authorized to dissolve a union by decree. Unions may not legally engage in political activity and must allow the Government to inspect their records. The law neither prohibits nor provides for the right to strike, nor does it prohibit retribution against strikers. There were no known major strikes in 1994.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Existing law does not protect the right to bargain collectively. The Government must approve any collective agreement. However, there are no known comprehensive collective bargaining agreements at present. Unions may negotiate wage settlements for their members and have often resorted to strikes or other actions to achieve their demands. The Labor Code does not prohibit antiunion discrimination. Therefore, employers are not required to reinstate workers fired for union activities. If employers engage in anti-union activity, the legal recourse for the union to fight such activity is limited. Nevertheless, there is a system of labor courts, which are often favorably disposed toward unions--especially if the employer is a foreign company. In 1993 the International Labor Organization's Committee of Experts urged the Government to adopt legislation protecting workers against antiunion discrimination. The Government has not yet taken such a step. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. There are no reports that it occurs.

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 workshops, stores, and begging in the streets. There is no minimum age for the employment of children, but the existing Code permits apprenticeships for children who are 14 years old. The Government is not able to enforce this regulation, however, especially in rural and remote areas where it has little influence over local custom. In general, family tradition and social mores do not discourage child labor.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no minimum wage. The prevailing daily wage for unskilled workers allows only a very modest standard of living for a worker with a family. This low standard has been eroded further by inflation. The law prescribes a maximum 8-hour workday, but many workshops and stores operate 10- to 12-hour shifts without penalty. The law limits the workweek to 48 hours, but there is no specific provision for a 24-hour rest period. Government employees work a 35-hour, 6-day workweek. There is no legislation providing workers with the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations. Enforcement of health and safety regulations is lax. Some foreign-owned companies implement higher health, safety, and environmental standards than required in Yemen.

This 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.