The group documented five coalition naval attacks on Yemeni fishing boats in the Red Sea in 2018, pointing out that in three of the attacks, coalition forces left the scene without trying to help fishermen who were wounded or adrift at sea.
While the coalition also allegedly detained without charge more than 100 fishermen in Saudi detention centres between 40 days and more than two-and-a-half years, the rights group said it documented an additional incident from 2016.
Witnesses to attacks and former detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch are identified by pseudonyms because of fear of reprisals against them or their families. Human Rights Watch also reviewed media reports on the attacks, documents from Yemeni coast guard and local fishing authorities, and a Saudi deportation request confirming the transfer of Yemeni citizens.
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that coalition warships and helicopters have been involved in attacks that killed at least 47 Yemeni fishermen, including seven children, and the detention of more than 100 others, some of whom were tortured in custody in Saudi Arabia.
According to the rights group, ‘’the coalition attacks on fishermen and fishing boats appear to be deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects in violation of the laws of war. Coalition officials who ordered or carried out the attacks or tortured detainees are most likely responsible for war crimes.
‘’Coalition naval forces repeatedly attacked Yemeni fishing boats and Yemeni fishermen without any apparent determination that they were valid military targets’’, said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. ‘’Gunning down fishermen waving white cloths or leaving shipwrecked crew members to drown are war crimes.’’
The group interviewed survivors, witnesses, and knowledgeable sources about seven fishing boat attacks: six in 2018 and one in 2016. Civilians died in five of them. Coalition forces carried out the attacks using small arms and heavy weapons. Warships and helicopters were involved in the attacks from short distances away, so the civilian nature of the fishing boats should have been clear. The fishermen waved white cloths, raised their hands, or otherwise showed they posed no threat. In three attacks, coalition forces did not attempt to rescue survivors adrift at sea, and many drowned.
A fisherman described the attack on his boat: “The helicopter was close, about three meters up. They said [over a megaphone] ‘go forward,’ and four or five [fishermen] went forward, and the rest were near the [boat’s] stern. I was in the middle. Then they hit us with the big gun with bullets.” Seven fishermen died.
The coalition also detained, apparently without charge, at least 115 fishermen, including 3 children, in Saudi Arabia for between 40 days and more than two-and-a-half years. Seven former detainees said that Saudi authorities tortured and ill-treated apprehended fishermen and boat crew members and denied them contact with their families, legal counsel, and Yemeni government representatives.
The attacks and detentions severely affected remote fishing communities that lost the primary earners for dozens of families. They have also deterred other fishermen from going to sea. “Before the war, fishing was good,” said the wife of a fisherman. “But we heard that eight men from the neighborhood next to us were killed…so [my husband] stopped going.”
The San Remo Manual on Armed Conflict at Sea, which is widely viewed as reflecting customary laws of war at sea, requires attacking forces to do everything feasible to limit attacks to military targets. Vessels are presumed to be civilian unless they are carrying military equipment or presenting an immediate threat to the attacking vessel. “Small coastal fishing vessels” are specifically exempt from attacks. These vessels must submit to identification and inspection when required, and follow orders, including orders to stop or move out of the way. The laws of war also place a duty on parties to the conflict, whenever circumstances permit but particularly after an engagement, to take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and shipwrecked.
The coalition body that reviews alleged laws of war violations by coalition forces, the Joint Incident Assessments Team (JIAT), has investigated fewer than 10 alleged attacks on civilians at sea, none of which appear to correspond with the attacks Human Rights Watch investigated. The JIAT did not find coalition wrongdoing in any of these cases or recommend payments to victims.
The fishermen and their relatives interviewed said that the JIAT had never contacted them. Saudi authorities gave monetary and equipment “assistance” to families of fishermen killed in only one case that Human Rights Watch investigated, and money to released crew members in another.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition on June 21 about the incidents investigated, but has received no reply.
Houthi forces, who control much of northern Yemen and are the target of the coalition forces, have unlawfully attacked commercial traffic in the Red Sea. In its 2018 final report, the UN Panel of Experts noted Houthi attacks on a crude oil tanker, a bulk cargo carrier, and a World Food Program charter vessel. Houthi forces launched attacks with anti-ship cruise missiles, remote-controlled boats filled with explosives, and skiffs carrying armed men. Houthi forces have also announced their use of sea mines, which pose a grave risk to civilian vessels.
Countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France should immediately cease all sales and transfers of weapons, including warships and helicopters, to Saudi Arabia, and should carefully review sales to coalition members given the possibility they could be used in committing violations, Human Rights Watch said.
“The naval attacks on Yemeni fishing boats make it clear that the Saudi-led coalition is not only killing civilians through countless illegal airstrikes, but also while conducting operations at sea,” Motaparthy said. “How much more proof do countries continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia need to stop all sales, including of warships, or risk becoming complicit in war crimes.”
The incidents investigated are not a complete accounting of coalition attacks on Yemeni fishermen. The Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, which monitors civilian casualties in Yemen’s armed conflict, reported at least 12 coalition attacks on fishing boats that killed or injured fishermen between January 2018 and January 2019, including 9 reported as airstrikes. Two match incidents that Human Rights Watch documented. Given the isolated nature of maritime incidents and poor communication networks on Yemen’s western coast, the number of attacks may be much higher.
All of the attacks documented appear to be violations of the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Yemen. In every incident, coalition forces appeared to deliberately attack fishing boats and fishermen that could clearly be identified as civilian. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of these boats posed a military threat to the coalition forces. Warships left the scene while fishermen were floating in the sea. The prolonged detention of fisherman and boat crews and torture and ill-treatment in custody also violated the laws of war and international human rights standards.
Commanders who willfully ordered or carried out unlawful attacks, failed without justification to rescue shipwrecked fishermen, or mistreated detainees are responsible for war crimes. Commanders responsible for the attacking units may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.
On September 15, 2018, coalition naval forces off the coast of Eritrea attacked the fishing boat Faris carrying 19 fishermen, apparently killing 14 men and 4 children. One man, Nafea Khadem Zayd Hurbi, survived but died in a motorbike accident about a month after the New York Times published an article that included his account. Human Rights Watch interviewed a person who knew the fishermen killed, a local human rights activist, and two fishing community members who said they had spoken to Hurbi about the attack.
After news of the incident spread on social media, coalition representatives at the al-Khawkha military base gave 100,000 Saudi riyals (US$26,600) to the families of the 18 fishermen for each of their relatives that was killed, plus a boat and outboard engine, but did not admit to any wrongdoing. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team did not list the incident in any of its public reporting.
On August 21, 2018, at about 3 p.m., Saudi naval and air forces attacked a fishing boat carrying 19 fishermen off the coast of Eritrea. Seven fishermen died in the attack and Saudi forces detained the remaining 12, 3 of whom had burns and another who was severely wounded. The fishing boat had left the Yemeni port of Qatabah about a week earlier with permission from the Eritrean government to fish in Eritrean waters.
Three survivors, interviewed separately, said they saw a gray and black helicopter with a Saudi flag painted on the side approach their boat. The men waved a white cloth and raised their hands to indicate they were unarmed. A man using the helicopter’s loudspeaker ordered them to move toward the boat’s bow. Some of the men did, but a gunman in the helicopter opened fire with an automatic weapon.
One fisherman, “Bassam,” described the attack: At that point, a coalition warship approached the fishing boat. It fired a munition that struck the boat’s stern and caused an explosion, setting the boat on fire. The 12 surviving fishermen jumped into the water, clinging to empty tanks to stay afloat. A rubber dinghy with several armed men approached the survivors.
Two witnesses said that the officers nearly executed one of the badly injured fishermen. “They yelled, ‘He is wounded. Kill him! Kill him!’” said “Shihab.” The wounded man shouted, “I am Muslim like you!” and started reciting the shahaada [prayer said before death]. At that point, the officers dragged him onto their boat.
After bringing the surviving fisherman aboard the naval ship, also marked with a Saudi flag, officers beat the fishing boat’s captain, one witness said.
The badly wounded fisherman was transported by helicopter to a military hospital for treatment and the 11 others were taken by ship and vehicle to a medical clinic in Saudi Arabia, and then to a detention facility near the Jizan port, in the country’s southwest. Three of them were burned severely, two witnesses said, but it was six days before they saw a doctor.
“The soldiers [in the detention facility] would cover their faces because of the smell [of the burns],” said “Hossam.” “[After] five to six days, they brought us pills and ointment and gauze.” Prison authorities did not transfer the burn victims to a hospital for treatment.
The men faced mistreatment during interrogation that amounted to torture. “Bassam” said: They blindfolded and handcuffed us and hit us with a cable…[I] lost consciousness every night for 15 days. Every one of us was investigated and hit…there was blood…We were interrogated for a few hours. I would go by myself. I felt from the beating and the voices that three or four people were hitting me in different ways and in different places – on my leg, and my chest, and my waist and bottom.They also hung me from a pipe from my arm and leg, and then they dropped me. They said, “You are Houthis…[C]onfess you are Houthi and we will stop doing this.” So I put my thumb print on a piece of paper [but] didn’t read it.
Three months later, Saudi authorities transferred eight of the detainees to a deportation detention center, where they spent nine days. Guards then put them on a bus to the al-Wadia crossing at the Yemen border. They said they were given 5,000 Saudi Riyals (US$1,333), which guards told them was “from King Salman,” and warned them not to speak about what happened to them after returning to Yemen. Once they crossed the border, Yemeni authorities gave men money to return home, and they made their way back to Khawkha. Another detainee was released 29 days later. The situation of the three remaining detainees, including the boat’s captain, remains unknown.
In mid-August 2018, coalition naval forces attacked two fishing boats on the same day near Zuqer Island off the coast of Yemen, in seas controlled by the Yemeni government. Human Rights Watch spoke with two survivors of one attack, one of whom witnessed the other attack.
One fishing boat had set off from Khawkha port with a crew of nine men and five boys. “Ramzi,” a crew member, said they received permission to fish from the political security office in al-Khawkha, which coordinated these requests with the Yemeni coast guard and coalition forces.
On the fifth day at sea, between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., when they were fishing near Zuqer Island, a coalition warship approached the boat, “Ramzi” said. The warship began shooting over the fishing boat, while the men onboard shouted that they were fishermen and waved at the warship to stop firing. The warship then fired at the boat, killing and injuring some of the crew.
Another fisherman, “Yousef,” gave a similar account. “I tried to hide in the boat but then I jumped,” he said. “I was injured in the head – one bullet penetrated the boat and nicked my head. I saw Ibrahim Abdo Saeed dying in front of me.”
The attack started a fire on the fishing boat, causing the surviving crew members to jump into the water. Ramzi saw the current carry two fishermen away, one a 13-year-old boy, though he later learned that they survived. Some died immediately and many others were wounded, he said. Ramzi managed to connect a cluster of jerry cans with rope, which he and four others, one of them a 13 or 14-year-old boy, used to stay afloat.
Ramzi said he saw a helicopter on the warship take off and fly toward another fishing boat about two nautical miles away, manned by fishermen whom he knew. He later learned that this boat was also attacked, and 4 of the 10 crew members died.
Ramzi and the others holding onto the bound jerrycans drifted for four days without food or water. On the fifth morning, at about 3 a.m., he said, the others began to drown, and by 5 a.m., Ramzi was the sole survivor.
Later that morning, an Eritrean boat passing by rescued him, and took him to Eritrea, where he stayed for four days before finding passage back to Yemen on another fishing vessel.
Yousef said he stayed alive by holding onto a jerrycan together with a 13-year-old boy for a day and a night before they were rescued by a passing boat. “We were new to fishing and didn’t know how to swim well,” he said.
On August 1, 2018, at about 5:30 a.m., three fishing boats set off from the Yemeni port of Khawkha. Human Rights Watch did not speak with any of the men aboard the vessels but interviewed “Amr,” whose relatives were killed in the incident, and who had a detailed account from two survivors. The account he provided is consistent with the New York Times reporting on the incident.
Amr said that 1 of the boats, with a crew of 9 men, together with the other 2 boats traveled approximately 22 nautical miles from Khawkha. The crew had received travel permission from the fishing institute of the Yemeni Coast Guard, which operates under coalition control, he said.
At about 10 or 11 a.m., a helicopter suddenly flew toward the boats and hovered for a few minutes overhead. The helicopter left but soon afterward, a munition apparently struck the stern of the boat, setting it ablaze.
Amr said the two survivors described hearing a warplane overhead, then a whistling sound before the munition exploded, suggesting that this attack might have been an airstrike.
The two said they remained in the water until 4 p.m., when another Yemeni boat passing by rescued them and took them back to Khawkha.
“The people whom we lost had kids and families,” Amr said. “[Now] all of them are on the brink of starvation.”
In mid-March 2018, a group of six fishing boats set out from the Hodeida port, with a seventh boat joining them seven days later. The 7 boats with 91 men were fishing in a loose cluster near al-Zubair Islands, a small archipelago about 45 nautical miles from Hodeida. Human Rights Watch interviewed the captain of one of the boats. A Houthi-affiliated news channel aired interviews with four men from the group, who said that coalition forces had arrested them and detained them in Jizan, subjecting them to beatings and other treatment they described as torture.
At that point, a rubber dinghy came toward the boats from the warship, carrying five or six armed men in uniform, Saeed said. The men boarded the fishing boats, separated the captains from the other crew members, and began searching the boats. Three armed men searched Saeed’s boat, he said, and checked the crew’s documents. He overheard one officer radio the warship and say, “They are fishermen…they are clear.” The man on the other end replied, “Bring the captains.” The coalition forces blindfolded the captains of the seven boats, including Saeed, and cuffed their arms and legs, then took them to the warship.
On board the warship, officers removed the leg cuffs and blindfolds and gave the men water but berated them for supporting the Houthis. “You are working with the Houthis, you are Houthis, you are terrorists,” Saeed recalled they said.
Officers on the ship ordered the seven boats to follow their vessel. They sailed for three days, then arrived at Jizan port in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities held them there at a detention facility, splitting the group between two cells. Saeed said that he and other detainees were beaten during interrogations. He was interrogated twice and others up to five times, he said.
Saeed said that none of the group had access to legal counsel, and none of them spoke to a representative of the Yemeni government. One fisherman, injured in his leg by a gunshot, received medical treatment at a nearby hospital for 10 days. After he was transferred to the detention facility, guards took the injured man to the hospital for treatment every five days, Saeed said. After about 40 days, all 91 men were released.
Around October 16, 2016, about 70 fishermen on a small boat and 2 large dhows, or sambuk, were fishing off the coast of Eritrea near Difnen Island. Six people interviewed separately, including fishermen who witnessed the arrests and relatives of detainees, said that coalition naval forces had stopped the boats. Over the course of the day, coalition forces detained 12 people – 9 men and 3 children – and held them for between 17 months and more than two-and-a-half years. Eight fishermen remain in detention. A local activist who investigated the case and conducted additional interviews corroborated the details that witnesses and family members provided to Human Rights Watch.
At about 8 a.m., a boat carrying eight armed uniformed military personnel approached one of the sambuks, said “Omar,” a crew member. Omar said the men were Saudi based on their uniform and accent. The forces accused the fishermen of being armed and of being Houthis, he said. The men replied that they were fishermen with permission to fish from both Yemeni and Eritrean government authorities.
The military personnel ordered the captain on one of the sambuks to sail in a particular direction, with the armed patrol boat alongside it, until about 4 p.m., Omar said.
“We arrived next to a large gray warship…with a helicopter on board,” Omar said. He saw other fishing boats in the water nearby, also apparently in coalition custody. The boats stayed next to the warship for 3 days while authorities detained and interrogated several crew members: 2 of the captains, 7 other men, and 3 boys ages 15 and under. On the third day, the Saudi authorities ordered the fishermen to return to Hodeida with their boats, but without the 2 sambuk captains and 10 other crew members from the various boats.
Saudi authorities have returned four of the detainees to Yemen. Several people familiar with the detainees’ experience said that the group had spent 17 days in a detention facility in Jizan, where they were temporarily separated from the boat captains, who were placed in solitary confinement. When the captains were reunited with the rest of the group, bruises were evident on their bodies.
The entire group of 12 was then transferred to Abu Arish prison, where they were held for about 52 days. Then they were transferred to Khamis Mashit prison. In early 2018, authorities released the three boys and returned them to the Marib governorate, where they stayed in a local detention facility for an additional month. Another man was released in late May 2019. The rest remain missing, last seen in Saudi custody. Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of four of the missing fishermen to confirm their continued detention.
Saudi forces detained without apparent legal basis at least 115 fishermen and crew members for 40 days to more than two-and-a-half years in detention centers and prisons in Saudi Arabia. Some detainees reported torture and other ill-treatment in custody. None were known to have been brought before a judicial authority. None had access to their family, lawyers, or Yemeni government representatives.
Two former detainees said that Saudi security personnel beat them with cables and wooden sticks, in one case causing unconsciousness, and hung them in the air while tied by an arm and a leg. The men described seeing other detainees who appear to have been tortured, including a fellow fisherman held in Jizan: He was in a very difficult condition. He was crawling and…couldn’t stand. His whole back was bleeding from the beating, [and] his whole mattress was covered with blood. He wasn’t talking at all. Even when I talked to him, he didn’t answer me.
Three other former detainees said that they were held in solitary confinement for periods ranging from a few days to three weeks, and said that they observed other crew members also held in solitary confinement. They said Saudi authorities did not provide adequate medical care to those who were injured or ill. The authorities also did not separate child detainees from adults as international law requires.
Detainees’ families said they did not know where their relatives were until others from their area were released. At least 10 fishermen last seen in Saudi detention facilities in these cases remain missing.
The Saudi government should immediately release all Yemeni fishermen and civilian boat crews detained without any lawful basis. Those detained should have access to a representative of their government, legal counsel, and contact with their families.
The UN Panel of Experts should review the roles and actions of naval captains of coalition warships operating in the Red Sea during the period of the above incidents. Investigations should also review the role of naval commanders, including Adm. Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Ghafili, current commander of the Saudi Royal Navy.
List of 47 fishermen and crew members killed in the incidents it documented:
September 15, 2018:Amr Yahya Radwan, Mansour Yahya Radwan, Ayash Saeed Dunini, Ahmed Saeed Dunini, Yahya Soliman Dunini, Ibrahim Soliman Dunini, Abdulla Muhammad Mussa, Saeed Muhammad Mussa, Abdul-Malik Thabit Murad, Anis Talib Hadhrami, Shaker Ali Yahya Nahari, Abdo Ali Bukiri, Hussain Muhammad Munubi, Fajri Ahmed Hassan, Abdo Ahmed Mahlbi, Muhammad Khadem Harbi, Abdulla Ali Hafez, and Yasser Wahb-Allah Bazaz
August 21, 2018: Salman Ahmad Abdo Muhammad Hassani, Ahmed Ghalib Salem Foufli, Ahmed Abdo Dabaj Qulia’b, Mahmmoud Thabit Salman Ahmdi, Muhammad Saleh Ali Hassani, Muhammad Abdo Muhammad Hassani, and Magdi Abdo Ali Hassani
Mid-August 2018: 2 attacks: Ahmed bin Ahmed Thabit, Abdul-Rahman Abdo, Ahmad Ibrahim Qassim, Esam Ali Saleh Atyia, Bashir Ghalib Qassim, Murshid Rashid Thabit, Ibrahim Abdo Saeed, Muhammad Ahmad Abdu-Hamid, Ali Ghalib Abdli, Saeed Salman Muhammad Alili, Emad Ibrahim Ahmad, Najib Ibrahim Muhammad Afda, Ali Suliman Ibrahim, Abbas Muhammad Afda, and Nasser Yousef Afda
August 1, 2018: Murtadha Zayd Murshid Zaid Bujiri, Mahyoub Saeed Saleh Bujiri, Abdulla Ibrahim Ahmed Bujiri, Adnan Bagash Ibrahim Ahmed Bujiri, Hameed Saif Saleh Bujiri, Muhammad Abdulla Hizam Afdah, and Hayel Abdulla Afdah