By Ali Salem
Sana’a, Yemen, June 2015
(Al Hayat) – Ethiopean illegal immigrant Saeed Elias, 22, lost his right arm after a Yemeni human trafficker poured caustic acid poured over it as he attempted to cross into neighboring Saudi Arabia.
His compatriot, Mohammad Abdel Rahman, 24, lost his right leg in a stampede while trying to flee into the oil-rich kingdom.
Despite their suffering, the two Ethiopians reached Saudi Arabia and, therefore, are considered lucky compared to Kamal, an Ethiopian, whose body was left rotting in Habis region in the middle of nowhere. The fate of Ahmed was not any better. The 11-year-old Nigerian is suffering from trauma after witnessing the torture to death of his mother in the city of Zahra, west Yemen.
Their fate is similar to thousands of illegal immigrants who have lost their lives at sea, or at the hands of human traffickers and gangsters in Yemen, their gateway to Saudi Arabia. These illegal immigrants, mostly from Africa, are captured by “gangsters” who jail or torture them to force them to get in touch with their families to get ransom money before they can be freed.
During the last few years, sea pirates have been attacking African immigrants along the western coast; from the southern region of Ta’az up to Hijja in the north. Approximately 400 immigrants have been attacked, daily. Human trafficking has become a profitable profession, not only for the unemployed, but also for government employees and security personnel as this investigative reporter has documented after two years of work.
This reporter concluded that the lack of cooperation between the police and the judicial system are among key reasons for not bringing those “accused criminals” to justice and to guarantee the safety of the immigrants. Furthermore, the biggest problem is the lack of coordination between the police, the army, who the immigrants should resort to, in order to confront the armed pirates.
Neither UNHCR nor the International Refugee Council offers any legal assistance to the immigrants. The same applies to the Ethiopian Embassy.
Police officer Ghalib Zoheir is one of those who have taken on a new job, that of “hunting down” illegal immigrants. Though he has been sentenced to death in absentia, Zoheir constructed a building in 2012 in al-Hays region- al-Hodeida governorate, where he kidnapped and tortured his victims in return for ransom from their families.
Devouring the Weak…
At this “unofficial” detention centre, tens of Africans have been exposed to various forms of torture — from being shackled, to beatings with iron rods, burning with acid and the remains of hot melted plastic water bottles. All of this took place before the eyes of Elias. At least two Ethiopians have been killed- according to some survivors, and official reports.
Based on interviews conducted by this reporter with tens of survivors and officials, supported by collected official documents, there is a lack of follow up procedure on human trafficking. So, instead of looking for the accused and bringing them to justice, Yemeni police arrests immigrants who, according to the police, could provide them with information regarding the accused criminals on the run.
The fact that neither the Yemeni authorities nor UNHCR recognize immigrants other than Somalis puts other nationalities at risk of being attacked, which at times could lead to murder. Fear of being arrested and therefore deported, forces them to take dangerous routes where they could expose themselves to fall as victims in the hands of those traffickers.
Political instability since the dismissal of president, Ali Abdallh Saleh in 2011 has given these human traffickers new opportunities. In 2012, 107,532 immigrants, mostly Ethiopians, arrived in Yemen. This has been the highest number since the UNHCR adopted a policy in 2006 whereby all immigrants had to be registered. (See fig.1)
The statistics does not include Somalis who do not register for fear of being arrested for illegal entry to the country. (See fig. 1.)
A Miserable Journey
In 2013, after being smuggled in a boat from Djibouti to al-Makhaa’ coast in Taaz governorate (256 km south of Sana’a), Both Elias and his friends were relived after arriving without much trouble. Their boat did not capcise and they were not arrested by coastline police.Their sense of relief did not last long after they were arrested by a local gang and tortured to pressure them to get ransom money to secure their release. This incident was reported by Elias in summer 2013.
At the hospital, both Elias and his friends were relieved, despite the pain and agony they felt as a result of the torture they had experienced. They were glad to be alive and free. However, this did not last. As soon as they recovered, they were transferred to the criminal court in the city of al-Hodaida.
Lieutenant Aqeel al-Maqtary, deputy director at the Criminal Court, said: “They are not prisoners. However, we cannot set them free. We have to keep them here so that the court does not set their kidnappers free, for lack of evidence. We had to keep them as defendants, otherwise, with no defendants the smugglers could not be brought to justice. He goes on to say that court cases in which the accused does not confess to the crime, take a long time to settle. However, although Elias and his friends had to wait, they were deported back to their country, having received no compensation.
The Misery of a Nigerian Woman and Her Son
When she got onto a boat which would get her smuggled from Sudan, along with tens of Sudanese, Chadians and Nigerians, Mrs. Sweiba, had not realized that her son, Ahmad Sijou would witness her torture. She hadn’t realized that he would be left an orphan.
On a hot Ramadan day on July 21, 2013 in Deir Qadri village, Zahra, al-Hudayda governorate, west Yemen, woke up to the screams of a young child: “Mama is dying.” Under a tree nearby the village, the body of an African woman in her forties; was found by the villagers. She had died.
“They tortured her while she was ‘fasting’”, as relayed to the police by a Sudanese woman who witnessed the torture session. She said that she managed to escape the torture, because she had asked her family to transfer SR 2000 (Saudi Riyals) — around (US$ 533) to the gangsters.
The immigrants are forced to get a loan, sell their land or cattle to pay for getting smuggled into Yemen. Others mortgage their homes/possessions, to save their lives after they are captured in Yemen. While being tortured, Ibrahim Ahmad was forced to contact his family in Ethiopia to ask them to mortgage a piece of land he owned and to transfer to the gang 2000 Saudi Riyals. This is according to a complaint he had submitted to Yemeni authorities.
According to police records, the man accused of Sobei’s murder, works at the Ministry of Education. However, local officials, one of whom Mokhtar, the village mayor, could not confirm the official title of the accused. The latter belongs to a family of “Sheiks” who are involved in a network of immigrant smuggling. Mr. Abdel Rahman al-Rifaai, governor of al-Zahra, says that he had spoken to the tribal leader who is protecting the accused. This leader had denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of the accused.
Like Kamal, whose body was left to rot in a place nearby the torture centre owned by policeman Ghaleb, thousands of Africans, among them women and children, have been abused; some were murdered, tortured and rapped, at the hands of local human traffickers and smugglers. It is rare to find those criminals brought to justice, let alone paying compensation to the victims.
Head of al-Hudayda police station, Lieutenant Mohammad al-Maqalih, proudly announces that the accused have been charged by the local court for “shooting African immigrants”. However, Lieut. Al-Maqalih admits that Ghalib, the policeman who also is accused of murdering the Nigerian woman, Sobei, are still free, despite all accusations pressed against them.
On 22, January 2013, the Hudayda Criminal Court charged Ghalib Abdallah Zoheir with a death sentence in absentia for murdering Mr. Kamal Ahmad. He was also ordered to pay the victim’s family, a sum of money. However, along with his father and brothers, the court found them to be innocent from allegations of amputating Elias’s arm, and torturing another Ethiopian man until he died- due to “lack of sufficient evidence.”
The court freed Elias and the other 13 Ethiopians after they served their sentence for entering Yemen illegally. Article # 47/1991 of foreigners entering Yemen, states that: “Foreigners who enter the country illegally will face a prison sentence, not more than a year, in addition to deportation.”
Ghalib’s father told the reporters that he had already informed local police authorities of what his son has been doing; kidnapping Africans. However, the authorities did nothing. According to official records, the place where Ghalib had kept the African men was raided when local police was informed that a body had been found in “Hays” by the Central Operation Police Station of the governorate. Other regions such as ‘Harid’ and ‘al-Zahra’, witnessed similar raid operations after crimes were committed. Had it not been for the body that was found on the road, neither Elias nor his friends would have been saved. If the little Nigerian child had not screamed, asking the villagers for help, the remaining detainees would not have been freed.
Bribing the Police
Djibouti is considered to be the primary crossing point for Ethiopians who take traditional boats to cross to the Yemeni coastline. Saiid Mohammad, 38, a surgeon who has political asylum in Yemen, reported that he had spent five days in the island of “Hayo” in the Dibouti waters before being smuggled to the Yemeni coast. One immigrant died of thirst and hunger, recalls Mohammad.
Hunting down Africans on the road, with the purpose of abusing them, has become a local tradition, not frowned upon while local authorities and government employees do not combat such acts.
On January 3, 2012, Mr. Abdel Aziz, removed the back seat of his car to accommodate 11 Ethiopians, with the intention of transferring them from a detention centre on the ‘al-Makhaa’ coast to ‘Harid’ region on the Yemeni-Saudi border.
When he arrived at the inspection point, one Ethiopian complained to the police that they are being kidnapped. The driver handed a sum of money to the police who allowed the car to pass. After a short distance, the Ethiopian who complained was forced to leave the car. According to the other victims, and the statement of Abdel Aziz’s to police, he was the only one who spoke Arabic.
The cases that the reporter examined, including three abductions as well as detentions, torture and murder, point to lack of thorough investigation and appropriate measures taken. Despite the fact that both witnesses and victims have reported the murder of two people at the detention center run by policeman, Ghalib, nothing was done except investigate the body that was found. The person in civil clothing, who helped the policeman to smuggle the 11 Ethiopians to’ Harid’ was not questioned. And there was no mention of possession of weapons which were used to threaten the victims.
Out of ten victims, four have reported to police the names of the human traffickers, documents show.
Ahmad Mehdi, an 18-year-old Ethiopian, was shot in a gunfire exchange between the police and the armed gang affiliated with a human trafficker, ‘Abdel Qawi’, whose name has been brought up in reports of victim confessions and official records. There was also mention of his ownership of a detention compound near ‘al-Makhaa’ coastline that was also protected by gunmen. This is the central place from where Africans get distributed to other traffickers. Survivors report that they have been tortured twice; once at the compound owed by ‘Abdel Qawi’, the other was at Ghalib’s compound.
Despite the fact that the names and location of those human traffickers are known to the authorities, no measures have been taken against them yet. ‘Al-Hodeida” police chief, Lieut. Mohammad al-Muqalih as well as other officials, confirms the lack of investigations and coordination among the governorates, as well as at a central and local level.
At the Criminal Investigation Unit in ‘Hodeida’, Lieut. Nabil al-Azani, chief of Murder and Abuse Deaartment, says, “As soon as a case gets transferred to the Criminal Court, the security authorities are no longer responsible.” He claims not to remember the case which he had investigated, such as the case of the African man whose body was found on the road between the governorates of Taaz and al-Hudayda, where the police could not identify the criminals. Al-Azzani, along with other officers, complain of limited resources.
Based on reports of witnesses, “two died yesterday”. This is according to Abu Rsas, who had sent a letter dated 28 September 2012. The letter was sent to Abdel Aziz, one of the human traffickers. The authorities do not know where the two bodies are or who Abu Rsas is.
Swimming against the Current
Lieut. Mohammad al-Tayyar- Chief of Murder and Abuse Department, at the Criminal Investigation Unit at Ta’az, says: “It is extremely difficult to find proof.” He complains of the challenges they face while pursuing human traffickers due to a corrupt government and judicial system.” Bribery offers have been made to ‘buy his silence’, as it were. He spent three months compiling evidence relating to the murders of Africans. He managed to identify the accused and the car, as well as the weapons used. However, after accused were brought to court in 2012, they were released. The Lieutenant goes on to say, “I don’t know how they were released,” adding that their vehicle is still impounded at the Court Investigations Unit.
By mid-2014, the police forces in Muwazzaa area — Ta’az Governorate — found the remains of the bodies of two Africans. Parts of their bodies had been eaten by dogs.
Chief police, Lieut. Fahed al-Khleidi, says that the information provided by an Ethiopian and a Somali, helped in identifying the murderer and his location. The police was able to arrest him last December. However Taaz authorities set him free.
Lieut. al-Khaleidi, reports that he had followed the accused but could not arrest him, as he “did not have enough police” to carry out the mission. Requesting assistance from the army is “a long and bureaucratic process.” He recalls how he had been asked to submit a letter allowing him to get assistance from the army.
He estimates the number of armed human traffickers to be between 10 and 15, pointing out that these traffickers have their contacts within the State Security, who alert them ahead of any planned busts. At the Criminal Investigation Unit, Lieut. Jamal Shamhan, argues that there was no sufficient evidence against the accused. In addition, Lieut. Mathar al-Shaabi, police chief in Taaz, denied any knowledge of this case. He also claimed not to know the names of any human traffickers in that region.
Lieut. Shamhan complains of the lack of presence of personnel from the Criminal Investigation Unit in regions where trafficking and detentions takes place (between al-Makhaa and Bab al-Mandab). In addition, some of the witnesses refuse to file a complaint; fearing for their lives. He believes that the issue of human trafficking requires a degree of power that neither the Criminal Investigation Unit nor the police have.
The governor of al-Zahra, Mr. Abdel Rahman al-Rifaai, agrees with Lieut. Shamhan: The traffickers have the capacity to forge evidence. They have the power to challenge the authorities.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) –www.arij.net