By AHMED AL-HAJ and MAGGIE MICHAEL
SANAA, Yemen (AP) - Yemen's interior minister on Monday demanded the United Arab Emirates shut down or hand over secret prisons that The Associated Press reported are under the control of the UAE and its allied militias.
At least 80 detainees have been freed from the facilities in recent weeks since an AP investigation detailed sexual abuse and torture at the sites.
It was the first time Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maysari has gone public with the demand in talks with an Emirati official, seeming to contradict the UAE's repeated denials that it has authority over any prisons in Yemen.
The AP first reported in an investigation last year that the UAE and its allied militias were running a network of secret detention facilities around southern Yemen, beyond the control of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government.
Former prisoners and security officials described widespread torture at the facilities, which are housed in locations ranging from Emirati-run military bases to a former nightclub run by a UAE-backed security chief and his anti-terrorism squad. Thousands of Yemenis swept up in the U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida have been held in the prisons without charges or trials. Some have been interrogated by U.S. personnel inside the facilities, the AP found.
In June, the AP revealed that hundreds had been subjected to sexual abuse, including one incident in the Beir Ahmed prison in the southern city of Aden, where detainees were lined up naked as guards probed their anal cavities. Sexual abuses were filmed as a way to turn suspects into informants, detainees reported.
On Sunday, Anwar Gargash, the UAE state minister for foreign affairs, dismissed as "fake news" reports that his country controls prisons or has set up a base on the Yemeni island of Socotra.
"In Yemen, the Emiratis have been subjected to an unjust smear campaign because it bears its responsibility toward regional security with courage and boldness," he said.
Al-Maysari, who has come under pressure from families of detainees who have disappeared into the prison network, has previously said he has no authority over the prisons and that he can't even enter the southern city of Aden without Emirati permission.
In Yemen's three-year civil war, the UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition battling Iranian-backed rebels known as Houthis who have taken over most of northern Yemen.
Ostensibly, the Emiratis and Hadi's government are allies in that fight. But tensions have been high between them. The UAE has built up militias across southern Yemen that government officials say are only loyal only to the Emiratis. Those forces have taken over wide swaths of territory in the south, including towns and cities. The official security forces, by contrast, are fragmented and poorly funded.
On Monday, al-Maysari met in Aden with the UAE's state minister for international cooperation, Reem al-Hashemi, in talks also attended by the top Emirati military commander in Yemen, Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Hassani.
Al-Maysari stressed the "necessity to shut down the prisons and put them under the authority of the Yemeni judiciary and prosecution," the state-run SABA news agency said.
Al-Maysari visited the Emirates last month for talks that officials said drew up plans to shut down the prisons. His visit came after repeated TV appearances in which he said he has no control over the prisons.
A senior government official told the AP on Monday that "the prisons are still under the Emiratis' full control."
"There are promises by the Emiratis to hand them over. We hope so," he said. "All we have are promises."
Recent weeks have seen several prisoner releases, apparently aimed at easing some of the pressure. So far 80 prisoners have been freed, according to prosecutors and family members.
In the latest release, three people who had been forcibly disappeared returned home to their families three days ago, saying they were freed from the Wadah Nightclub detention facility, their families told the AP.
The Wadah facility was found empty Sunday during a visit by the state-run National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations in Human Rights, the commission said. It is not clear how many detainees were there or what happened to them. Former detainees say there were several cells, some containing up to 70 people.
In recent weeks, there appears to have been an effort to paper over the conditions at Beir Ahmed. Prisoners say on one occasion, wardens forced detainees to play volleyball and chess in front of cameras, and that TV screens were installed to allow them to watch the World Cup. The prisoners spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Al-Maysari was expected to visit the prison on Sunday, according to three relatives of prisoners who met with him on Wednesday. "He told us he will get in, search for the missing ones, and get a full list of detainees. He will be in charge," a mother of one of the three said.
Ahead of the visit, prisoners were given new clothes and meals, and buildings were painted. But on Sunday, al-Maysari failed to show up. Maj. Gen. Ali Lakhsha, his deputy, arrived instead.
In comments aired on TV during the visit, Lakhsha said there was no evidence of secret prisons outside government control. That prompted an angry protest by families of detainees outside al-Maysari's house the next day, accusing the government of "whitewashing their (UAE) crimes."
Lakhsha's office issued a statement Monday saying that any facilities that had been outside government control were now in the government's hands.
But several security officials told the AP there was no change in control of any facilities and that Beir Ahmed remained under the control of the Security Belt, a militia armed and funded by the UAE. They said Lakhsha's comments were made to ease tensions with the Emiratis. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The Associated Press reported this story with help from a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Michael reported from Cairo.
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