Yemen: Call for independent probe into deadly prison airstrikes


Airstrikes last week by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that hit a detention facility in the northern city of Sa’ada, killed some 91 people and injured dozens more, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, said on Friday, citing preliminary figures. 

The remand prison was run by the Ansar Allah movement, also known as Houthis, who have been battling the internationally recognized government, which is backed by the coalition, for the past seven years. 

The facility was believed to be holding 1.300 pre-trial detainees, as well as 700 migrants, when it was hit on 21 January by three airstrikes in quick succession. 

‘Chaotic and desperate’ 

OHCHR Spokesperson Rupert Colville said staff from its Yemen office were in Sa’ada this week as part of an interagency mission, and the information they collected “paints a chaotic and desperate picture” in the wake of the airstrikes.  

“We are working to verify the civilian casualties but so far, we understand that some 91 detainees were killed, many when the upper floor of one building collapsed, and 236 others were injured,” Mr. Colville told journalists in Geneva.  

The most severely injured detainees were taken to Al Jomhori Hospital in the city, which was struggling to deal with the number of patients in need of urgent and life-saving treatment. 

Ensure independent probe 

The Saudi-led coalition on Thursday announced that it is investigating the airstrikes, according to media reports, and Mr. Colville said the message was reiterated on Friday morning. 

“We urge them to ensure that the investigation is in line with international standards and is transparent, independent and impartial, to establish why the prison was hit, to ensure individual accountability for any breaches of international humanitarian law, and to identify measures and procedures required to prevent such incidents in the future,” he said.  

“During the recent visit by our team this week, we saw no signs indicating that this site, formerly a barracks, continues to have a military function. And in light of this, we have asked the coalition to share their information with us.” 

Escalating conflict

Prior to the airstrikes, OHCHR had warned about the escalating conflict in Yemen. 

During 2021, the UN recorded just under 600 coalition airstrikes a month across Yemen, and 340 missile and drone attacks by Ansar Allah forces on Saudi Arabian territory. 

So far this year, there have been 1,403 coalition airstrikes, and 39 cross-border attacks by the Houthis, mostly on Saudi Arabia but also on the United Arab Emirates.  

“As the fighting intensifies throughout Yemen, we remind parties to the conflict that international humanitarian law must be scrupulously respected during the conduct of hostilities,” said Mr. Colville. “This includes taking all feasible measures to verify that targets are indeed military objectives at the time they intend to strike.” 

Meanwhile, Yemeni Government forces continue to carry out a major counter-offensive against Ansar Allah in the strategic city of Marib, and in adjacent Shabwa governorate, resulting in more violence. 

The rebels launched a missile on Wednesday evening which hit a multi-lane road across from a military camp in Marib, which caused several casualties among soldiers gathered at the roadside. 

OHCHR has verified that three civilians, who were on the road at the same time, were killed, and nine others wounded. 

Release UN staff

The office has also renewed its demand that Ansar Allah immediately release two UN staff who have been “unacceptably detained” since early November in the capital, Sana’a. 

The staff members work for OHCHR and the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, respectively. 

Mr. Colville said no information has been provided as to the grounds or legal basis for their detention, and they have not had any communication with their families.