The Huthi armed group, supported by state security forces, has carried out a wave of arrests of its opponents, arbitrarily seizing critics at gunpoint and subjecting some to enforced disappearance as part of a chilling campaign to quash dissent in areas of Yemen under its control, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
Where is my father? Detention and disappearance in Huthi-controlled Yemen,which is based on 60 cases of detention examined in detail by the organization, reveals a pattern of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances in Sana’a, Ibb, Ta’iz and Hodeidah between December 2014 and March 2016. Those targeted include political opposition figures, human rights defenders, journalists, academics and others. Many have been held incommunicado for prolonged periods, suffered torture and other ill-treatment and been denied access to a lawyer or their family.
“Huthi forces have presided over a brutal and deliberate campaign targeting their political opponents and other critics since December 2014. Hundreds of people have been rounded up and held without charge or trial, and in some cases they have been forcibly disappeared in flagrant violation of international law,” said James Lynch, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.
“Enforced disappearance is an abhorrent crime and cannot be justified under any circumstances. Instead of incarcerating opponents for weeks or months on end, the Huthi armed group should release anyone who has been arbitrarily detained, implement safeguards to ensure detainees are treated humanely and issue clear instructions that anyone under their command committing abuses will be held accountable.”
In the vast majority of cases those detained were given no reason for their arrest. Some prisoners have been held for up to 17 months without being brought before a prosecutor or a judge. None of the detainees featured in the report were ever officially charged or given an opportunity to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. Huthi officials told Amnesty International in May 2016 that those in detention were being held “because they gave GPS coordinates to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.”
Amnesty International has obtained documents which show that prosecuting authorities in Sana’a have found the detention of dozens of political activists, journalists and others to be without legal basis and have ordered their release, apparently to no effect.
Many detainees have been held in secret, makeshift detention centers, including private homes and have been transferred multiple times between different locations. Eighteen individuals whose cases are featured in Amnesty International’s report are still being held. The whereabouts of three of them are unknown.
The report includes distressing accounts from former detainees, and from family members of detainees, who described to Amnesty International the use of torture and other ill-treatment in detention.
The family of 21-year-old student Abdul-ilah Saylan, who was arrested outside a Sana’a cafe in August 2015 described how members of the security forces tortured him in front of them when they visited him in his place of detention in February 2016.
“The guard began to beat him. Three other guards joined in and we watched…as the four guards beat him viciously. Can you imagine how it felt to see him bleed from his nose and mouth and finally faint from the beatings while being unable to do anything to help him?…They dragged him back inside when he fainted and told us to go home,” said one family member.
The next time his family visited a few weeks later, Abdul-ilah Saylan’s face was black and blue with bruises. He told them that when he regained consciousness he was tied up and beaten by seven men until he nearly passed out again. He has not been charged or informed of the reason for his detention, despite his family urging the prison authorities to refer him to court. In September 2015 a film of his “confession” that he was a fighter with an anti-Huthi group, apparently made under duress, was aired on a Yemeni television channel.
One former detainee, who was among 25 men including journalists, activists and human rights defenders who were arbitrarily arrested from the Ibb Garden Hotel in October 2015, described to Amnesty International how his interrogators tortured him for 90 minutes. He was blindfolded with his hands tied together and beaten all over his body with a stick. The interrogators also gave him electric shocks to the chest, neck, forearms and groin.
Wide range of people targeted
The majority of those targeted are activists, journalists or other figures affiliated with al-Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party which opposed the Huthi takeover of power and announced its support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in April 2015. However, in some cases those detained had no known political affiliation or history that could explain why they were targeted. At least 11 journalists are among those who have been arbitrarily detained.
Mohamed Qahtan, a prominent figure in the al-Islah Party and outspoken critic of the Huthis, is one of several members of the group who have been targeted, arrested or had their homes raided by the Huthi armed group. He has been missing since April 2015 when he was seized from his home by a dozen armed men in plainclothes. His family was only permitted to visit him once, three days after his arrest. His whereabouts have remained unknown ever since, leading his family to fear he may be dead.
Adel Hajr, a teacher from Hodeidah has been detained since December 2014. He was rounded up with a number of friends during Friday evening prayers, was given no reason for his arrest and has been held incommunicado for prolonged periods.
“Adel is a father of two, one little girl and one little boy, he is just a mathematics teacher. In his spare time he used to volunteer at an orphanage. Why did they take him?” his wife, Arwa, said to Amnesty International.
“Depriving anyone of their liberty at random – without any legal basis for their arrest – is an unconscionable violation of their rights,” said Lynch.
“It also has heart-breaking consequences for the family members left behind. They can spend months trying to find out the fates of their missing loved ones, or struggling to secure their release when there is not even any firm accusation against them.”
A special committee for prisoners and detainees has been created during peace talks on Yemen which are currently taking place in Kuwait. Amnesty International is calling on parties to the talks, as well as international actors facilitating or supporting the process, to ensure that the rights of those detained arbitrarily in areas under Huthi control and their families are prioritized during the negotiations.
The Ministry of Human Rights in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, which is under Huthi control, told Amnesty International in a May 16 memorandum that accusations of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture were “baseless” and that those who criticiZe the authorities in Sana’a have “not been subjected to any repressive measures,” as “Yemen and its authorities firmly believe in freedom of expression.”