(Beirut) – Houthi and other Sanaa-based authorities in Yemen have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly disappeared numerous opponents, Human Rights Watch said today. Among the hundreds of cases of arbitrary detention reported by Yemeni groups since September 2014, Human Rights Watch recently documented two deaths in custody and 11 cases of alleged torture or other ill-treatment, including the abuse of a child.
A Houthi fighter checks a van at a checkpoint on a street in Yemen’s capital Sanaa October 21, 2015.
© REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
The authorities should free those wrongfully held immediately, end detention without access to lawyers or family members, and prosecute officials responsible for mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also promptly implement an amnesty for political detainees they announced in September.
“The conflict with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition provides no justification for torture and ‘disappearance’ of perceived opponents,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Sanaa authorities put themselves at risk of future prosecution if they don’t account for the people who are wrongfully detained and return them to their families.”
In August and September 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed five former detainees and 19 relatives and friends of those detained in Sanaa and elsewhere in Yemen.
Since August 2014, Human Rights Watch has documented the Sanaa-based authorities’ arbitrary or abusive detention of at least 61 people. The authorities have since released at least 26, but 24 remain in custody and two died during detention. Families have not been able to learn the whereabouts of nine more men, who have seemingly been forcibly disappeared. Many people appear to have been arrested because of their links to Islah, a Sunni opposition party, but students, journalists, activists, and members of the Baha’i community have also been arrested and detained for apparently politically motivated reasons.
The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have controlled the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen since September 2014. On July 28, 2016, the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress announced the formation of a governing council to run the country. The newly established Supreme Political Council oversees the Sanaa-based Interior Ministry, which oversees detention sites in Houthi- and Saleh-controlled Yemen.
On September 20, the council adopted Decision 15 of 2016, which declared a general amnesty for anyone, civilian or military, who had assisted the Saudi-led coalition and had returned home within two months, given up arms, and signed a pledge disavowing any further support to the coalition. The amnesty excludes those accused of “terrorism” or war crimes, and people who escaped detention or continued to fight with the coalition.
On November 9, Khalid Al-Sharif, head of the committee set up to process amnesty requests, told Human Rights Watch that implementation of the decision was delayed as two committee members were killed and three wounded at a large funeral gathering in Sanaa that the Saudi-led coalition bombed on October 8. While the amnesty applies only to individuals accused of cooperating with the coalition, the committee would coordinate with other Sanaa-based authorities to ensure that arbitrarily detained individuals not subject to the amnesty be released promptly without signing the otherwise required pledge, he said.
On November 12, a local nongovernmental organization told Human Rights Watch that no steps had been taken to implement the decision and that the authorities were continuing to arrest and detain people without charge.
The Sanaa-based authorities should immediately begin releasing those held arbitrarily, prioritizing the release of children and other vulnerable prisoners, Human Rights Watch said. No one should be required to sign a pledge that includes admitting they cooperated with the coalition as a condition of release.
The amnesty committee does not have the authority to investigate allegations of mistreatment, but the Sanaa-based Foreign Affairs Ministry wrote on October 14, in response to a Human Rights Watch letter, that detainees have the right to file complaints with a deputy prosecutor who can determine the legality of a person’s detention, investigate mistreatment claims, and forward cases of abuse for prosecution. The ministry did not respond to Human Rights Watch queries as to whether any investigations or prosecutions into alleged torture or ill-treatment of detainees had occurred.
Abdul Basit Ghazi, a Yemeni lawyer who heads the nongovernmental Defense Authority of Abductees and Prisoners, which provides legal representation to detainees, said that the general prosecutor has ordered the release of dozens of detainees and investigations into alleged abuse, including several cases Human Rights Watch documented. However, Ghazi said that in most cases prison and police authorities do not release these detainees, let alone investigate abuses. He also said they often block access to prisons, including to officials who oversee detainees. The authorities did not grant Human Rights Watch’s repeated requests to visit prisons.
Mwatana, a leading Yemeni human rights organization, has reported on 53 cases of arbitrary detention and 26 cases of enforced disappearance by Sanaa-based authorities. Amnesty International has documented 60 cases of arbitrary detention or enforced disappearance.
Ghazi said that his organization was working on behalf of more than 2,500 detainees and disappeared people. He said that as of August, the Sanaa-based authorities were holding at least 650 people in the Habra and al-Thawra pretrial detention facilities, another 660 to 700 in Sanaa Central Prison, and 30 to 40 at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Sanaa.
Scores of detainees are also being held at non-official detention sites. Ghazi said that authorities were holding 120 people at the Political Security Organization (PSO) headquarters, 180 at Zain al-Abdeen mosque in Hiziyaz, and 35 at the National Security Bureau (NSB) in Sanaa’s Old City.
Human Rights Watch documented cases of apparent arbitrary detention and mistreatment at all of these locations but was unable to confirm the number of people held at each site. In June, the Houthis and the General People’s Congress were holding 3,760 detainees altogether, according to media reports.
Under international human rights law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities take someone into custody and deny holding them or fail to disclose their fate or whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are at greater risk of torture and other ill-treatment, especially when they are detained outside formal detention facilities, such as police jails and prisons.
While the Sanaa-based authorities may take appropriate measures to address security concerns related to Yemen’s armed conflict, international human rights law protects basic rights, including the right not to be arbitrarily detained, tortured or ill-treated, or forcibly disappeared. At a minimum, those detained should be informed of the specific grounds for their arrest, be able to fairly contest their detention before an independent and impartial judge, have access to a lawyer and family members, and have their case periodically reviewed.
“Enforcing the amnesty could release many people wrongfully detained, but measures are needed to ensure arbitrary arrests and ‘disappearances’ don’t continue,” Whitson said. “It’s crucial to ensure that anyone responsible for torture and other abuses is appropriately punished.”
The following cases are based on 24 interviews that Human Rights Watch conducted between August and September 2016, including with 5 former detainees and 19 family members and friends of people detained. Pseudonyms have been used in most cases to protect the identity and the security of family members and victims.
Deaths in Detention
On October 29, 2015, police in al-Mahweet governorate, northwest of Sanaa, told Ali ‘Awda, who was studying for an accounting master’s degree in Sanaa, to report to al-Mahweet police station. He went there that day, family members said. They had no news of his whereabouts for three weeks.
On November 20, a Houthi official informed the family that ‘Awda had been killed during a fight. In the weeks that followed, the authorities repeatedly changed their story, prevented the family from seeing ‘Awda’s body, and, when a local CID officer tried to help, suspended him. A family member said that a doctor at the hospital where ‘Awda’s body was held told them there were “obvious signs of torture.”
On December 29, the hospital finally permitted two family members to see ‘Awda’s body. His stomach, legs, and back were covered in bruises, his arms burned on the front and back, and his hands covered with abrasions, they said.
The family asked for an official autopsy, but an official at the hospital said he could not provide it. In August 2016, the general prosecutor wrote a letter, a copy of which Human Rights Watch obtained, ordering a forensic report. The hospital provided the report recommending a full autopsy to determine the cause of death but has not released the body. An autopsy has not been conducted.
In mid-2016, Fahd (a pseudonym), a doctoral student, was having dinner with a friend in Sanaa when men wearing civilian clothes came and took him to a nearby police station, said a family member, Tariq (a pseudonym).
The next day, Houthi officials at the station allowed Tariq to speak to Fahd for a few minutes, then ordered Tariq to leave. Tariq went back to the station the next morning, but Fahd was no longer there. Some guards said he had been released, while others said he had been taken to the National Security Bureau.
In August, someone with connections to the Houthis told Tariq that Fahd had died. Tariq went to the hospital where Fahd’s body was being kept. When a Houthi official found him trying to take pictures, he told Tariq no one was allowed to examine the body without written permission and ordered Tariq to leave. A few days later, Tariq and some relatives bribed a morgue employee to see the body. He said, “We removed the sheet and we saw very obvious marks and evidence of torture, lines over his skin where he had been hit by sticks, and some burn marks on his abdomen and chest.”
Tariq said the police told him they had orders not to provide an autopsy report. About a month later, the general prosecutor sent a letter at the family’s request ordering the police to investigate. The family has not received an autopsy report or information that an investigation had progressed.
Torture and Ill-Treatment of a Child
In 2016, Houthi forces arrested Yusuf (a pseudonym), a 17-year-old high-school student. Yusuf said that he was in a car with a relative when about six armed men in civilian clothes pointed guns at them, ordered them to come with them, and drove them to a detention facility.
At the facility, the men separated Yusuf from his relative, blindfolded him, and took him somewhere underground. Yusuf said he was moved among various cells, where he was detained with adults. Four days later, two men interrogated him for an hour while he was blindfolded and handcuffed, asking him questions about his family. Yusuf said they beat him and threatened to tie both his arms to a window and hang him above the ground or rip his fingernails off if he didn’t answer their questions.
Two weeks later, four men again interrogated Yusuf, this time for five hours, beating him, pulling his hair, yelling at him and threatening him, Yusuf said. They again asked about his family’s links to opposition parties. Men interrogated Yusuf again for about two hours three days later, insulting and slapping him.
After Yusuf spent nearly a month in detention, authorities released him. He took his final high school exams. His family did not file a complaint about his mistreatment, as they were worried the authorities might retaliate against one of their relatives who remained detained.
Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment
“Salem,” “Mohammed,” and “Talal”
In 2015, Salem (a pseudonym), was entertaining guests at home when several trucks filled with men arrived. The men entered the house and began beating Salem with their guns and batons. When his grandmother tried to intervene, a man hit her and threw her into the street, said Salem and two family members who were present.
As one group of men took him away, Salem saw another group blindfolding and taking away his father, Mohammed (a pseudonym), and a guest, Talal (a pseudonym).
Salem was blindfolded and driven around for a couple of hours. Then he was put in a dark room with about a dozen other prisoners. He remained there for 22 days, then was transferred to a house where about a dozen other prisoners were held. During three six-hour interrogation sessions there, “from sunset to sunrise,” he said, guards beat him with chains on his back, hit him with batons, and hung him by his ankles.
After four months, he was released. Talal, who was with him in the detention facility, was released a month earlier. Officials refused to confirm his father’s whereabouts for more than five months, then two Houthi officials told the family Mohammed was being held at the NSB. Almost a year-and-a-half after being detained, Mohammed was released. None of the three men was ever charged with a crime.
In mid-2015, Ali (a pseudonym), a university student, was in a truck heading to Sanaa when a few men at a checkpoint ordered him and a friend accompanying him out of the vehicle. The two were taken to a detention facility the next day.
Over the next month, Ali was held in solitary confinement and interrogated six times, “lasting from night until morning each time.” Ali said that during the first interrogation, one of the guards kicked him and the other punched him, saying he was with Islah, the Islamist political party. Ali told them that he was not with Islah, but even if he was, he’d be proud. At the end of the session, the guards kicked him, punched him, and hit him with a mop handle for 10 to 15 minutes. The pattern of interrogation, beatings, and solitary confinement in between continued.
After his fourth interrogation, prison guards blindfolded him, told him to remove his shoes, pushed him into a room, and told him to start walking. He could hear someone telling him to keep moving. He did, was hit with an electrical shock, and lost consciousness. When he awakened, he was questioned again, and given shocks three more times.
Ali was interrogated twice more, but said he was not beaten during these final sessions. He was then kept in solitary confinement for about a month, in a cell about 1 meter by 1.5 meters, then moved into the prison’s general population for about six months. Over the next six months, he was transferred to three other facilities.
After he spent nearly a year in detention, his family paid a series of large bribes, and he was released. Human Rights Watch saw a copy of the release order, which had written on the back that his “financial issues” had been resolved and the reason for his detention was “classified.”
In late 2015, Nasser (a pseudonym), a lawyer, stopped at a mosque to pray on his way to work. He said that a group of armed men entered the mosque and took him to a police station. In the middle of the night, the men blindfolded, handcuffed, and chained him to another prisoner, then took him to the Habra pretrial detention facility.
Nasser remained in a crowded ward at Habra that housed around 40 prisoners for about a month. After about two weeks, officials blindfolded and handcuffed Nasser one morning and took him to another room. For about three hours, four or five people interrogated him, threatening him, accusing him of working with militias, and giving him electric shocks a few times. They forced him to sign a confession. He said: “I have no idea what it said because I was blindfolded at the time. I put my thumbprint on it. They didn’t tell me what was in it but I knew if I didn’t sign it I wouldn’t be released.”
Nasser’s ward mates, including a 16-year-old, were periodically taken away and he believes some were tortured. He was released after about a month, without being taken before a judge, given access to a lawyer, or charged.
In early 2016, seven or eight Houthi-affiliated men stopped Muhanned (a pseudonym) and two family members at an unofficial checkpoint about 40 meters from their home. A family member said that one of the men worked with the Houthis and a few months earlier had accused Muhanned of being with Islah and threatened him with jail.
The men took Muhanned from his car. A week later, he sent his family a letter saying authorities had moved him to the Habra pretrial detention facility. Officials at Habra denied he was there for a month and a half, then allowed the family to visit.
After about four months, prison guards began to interrogate and mistreat Muhanned, the family member said, preventing them from visiting for two weeks. When family members were allowed to visit again, Muhanned told them guards had hung him from his arms, beaten him repeatedly on the back and put him in solitary confinement. They eventually forced him to put his thumbprint on a confession that said he was with forces opposed to the Houthis. He remains in Habra.
In spring 2016, Houthi forces arrested Akram (a pseudonym), a man in his fifties, outside his office and drove him to the PSO headquarters, two family members said. After Akram spent a month in detention, authorities allowed his family to visit. Akram told them he couldn’t tolerate being there, that he was kept in solitary confinement, that it was dark all the time, and that he ate, slept, and defecated in the “same, small dark space.” A family member said he noticed marks on Akram’s wrists, and that Akram told him guards had hung him over a window and beaten him more than 25 times with a stick, trying to make him confess to things he had not done. One of his fingers was broken. A month and a half after Akram was detained, a judge ordered Akram’s release, but the PSO is still holding him.
Dr. Abd al-Kader al-Guneid and “Hassan”
On August 5, 2015, at about 3:30 p.m., as Human Rights Watch previously reported, a group of men in civilian clothes stormed into the home of Dr. Abd al-Kader al-Guneid, a medical doctor and human rights activist, and ordered him to come with them. Al-Guneid remained detained in the NSB in Sanaa until May 21, 2016, when he was released. He said:
The conditions are just horrible. We are sardines … The jailers, their behavior, they are full of this hatred and all the time you feel this is unjust because you should not be there. The first three months, I was terribly hungry… but no one would bother to talk to me, which, I think is part of the deal. They put you there, not knowing what is going to happen to you.
During the first three months, he shared a cell with “Hassan,” whose arms and legs were paralyzed, al-Guneid said. Al-Guneid examined Hassan’s injuries which, he said, were clearly a result of torture. Prison guards had dragged Hassan up and down stairs, pulled his arms and his legs in opposite directions, used electric shock against him, burned him with cigarette stubs, and castrated his left testicle, al-Guneid said.
Al-Guneid wrote a report outlining Hassan’s condition and the cause. Soon after, guards took Hassan to a hospital for an examination, but al-Guneid said the doctor’s report from the hospital declaring Hassan was not permanently injured did not align with his own professional assessment based on his examination of Hassan’s injuries.
After al-Guneid was held for three months, officers at the NSB began needing his services as a doctor and moved him to a new cell. He began treating patients, including those whose injuries, he said, were probably a result of mistreatment or torture during interrogations. “Many people came to me crying because they were tortured,” he said. “I am one of the very few that was not beaten up.”
On December 25, 2014, Houthi officials arrested Ismael al-Ramadi, 26, a student of Islamic Studies and an Islah member. Two relatives said that about 15 Houthi officials, wearing a mix of civilian clothes and military uniforms, came to al-Ramadi’s house in Arhab district in northern Sanaa governorate at about 11 a.m. “They searched the whole house, opened every door, broke one that was locked, opened every cabinet, without giving us any reason,” one relative said. “They didn’t take anything.”
The next day, al-Ramadi’s father went to a nearby Houthi post to request his son’s release, telling officials there that his son’s one-year-old daughter had died, and the father wanted him to have a chance to bury his daughter. The local supervisor said al-Ramadi had already been moved to Sanaa, the relatives said.
The family repeatedly went to Sanaa and asked Houthi officials about al-Ramadi’s whereabouts, but, as one relative said: “Each person says something different, either that he was released, that they never were holding him, that he is in PSO, or in NSB.” His whereabouts remained unknown.
Arbitrary Detention of Islah Members and Other Opposition Groups
On August 10, 2015, at about 5 a.m., seven people stormed into the home of Zahwan al-Barti, 37, an Islah member, went through his private belongings, and took him to al-Ulfi police station, a relative said.
For the next three and a half months, al-Barti’s family received no information about his whereabouts. Then someone told them he was detained in al-Thawra pretrial detention facility. For a month, the prison guards refused to let the family visit.
When a family member was able to visit, al-Barti said that prison guards had beaten him with an electrical cable while he was blindfolded, and that he could hear another prisoner screaming in the next room. He said that authorities held him in solitary confinement for 13 days and that guards had once threatened to “disappear” him.
On February 29, a prosecutor ordered al-Barti’s release. Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the document. But officials at al-Thawra told the family there were new complaints against al-Barti so they would not release him.
On February 22, 2016, at about 10 a.m., Samir al-Dubiani, 40, was driving to a hospital in Sanaa when four trucks cut off his car. A family member said:
Suddenly there were 20 men who had gotten out and surrounded us. They were all in civilian dress but all of them were armed. Two opened the driver’s door and dragged [al-Dubiani] out, put handcuffs on him, and put him on the back of the [truck] and drove off with most of the other men.
At around the same time, a group of armed men raided al-Dubiani’s house, taking a number of the family’s belongings, another family member said. Two months later a Houthi official told the family al-Dubiani was being held at Habra due to his ties to Islah. He remains there.
On February 8, 2016, at about 9 a.m., eight Houthi officials went to the home of Muhammad al-Jarmoozi, a 40-year-old university student and member of Islah, a family member said. They detained him, and for two months, the family heard nothing, Then, a former detainee at the Zain al-Abdeen mosque in Hiziyaz, used by the Houthis as a prison, told the family that al-Jarmoozi was being held there. A Houthi official allowed the family to visit al-Jarmoozi for the first time the next day, for about five minutes. The family continued visiting him every few weeks. In June, he was transferred to a prison in a small village outside of Sanaa. He remains detained. The authorities have not brought a case against him but told the family he is accused of being affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
On May 15, 2015, Sami al-Hashidi, a 23-year-old taxi driver, was on his way home from the city of Amran in Amran governorate, north of Sanaa, when he was arrested and taken to the football stadium in the town, where the Houthis held a number of detainees, a family member said. About a month later, a CID officer called the family and told them al-Hashidi was being detained there. Officials began allowing family visits, but family members said the visits were very short, and suspended at various points, including when al-Hashidi was being interrogated. During one visit, al-Hashidi showed them more than 20 marks on his chest and back where interrogators had apparently burned him with cigarettes. Authorities told the family he is being held because of perceived links to ISIS, though his family said he had no links to extremist groups. He remains in detention.
Arbitrary Detention of Journalists
The Houthis have targeted journalists in their campaign of arbitrary arrests and detentions.
At 4 a.m. on June 9, 2015, about 20 armed police and military forces arrested nine journalists working for various opposition media outlets who were using a room in the Qasr al-Ahlam Hotel in Sanaa as an office. Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of two of the journalists and the journalists’ lawyer, who said the authorities held the men at two police stations over the next few days then transferred them to CID and then to al-Thawra pretrial detention facility.
The family of one of the journalists, Abdul-Khaliq Imran, 32, heard no news of him for four months, when authorities told them he was detained in al-Thawra. Authorities allowed the family to begin visiting in September 2015, but visits were limited to about 10 minutes. Imran told his family and his lawyer that when he arrived at the CID guards prevented him from sleeping, beat him, hung him from his shoulders, hit him with a bamboo stick, and threatened to kill him. A relative of another journalist said that he was also unable to visit his relative for three months and that, on subsequent visits, he saw guards hit, insult, or threaten some of the journalists.
In February, after his family complained about the conditions and brought it to the attention of the media, the authorities moved Imran to the Habra pretrial detention facility. In late May, the authorities moved Imran to PSO headquarters, along with the other eight journalists, soon after the journalists began a hunger strike. They remain in detention.
The authorities in Sanaa arrested four independent journalists between April and October 2015, including Salah al-Qaedi, 30. On August 28, at about 4 p.m., al-Qaedi was charging his laptop in his cousin’s office when Houthi officials arrested him and took him and six others to the al-Judairi police station, a relative said. The other six were released the next day, but al-Qaedi remained at the police station.
A family member said that, in late October, guards tortured al-Qaedi for the first time:
After he refused to say the sarkha [the Houthi slogan], the guards brought a police dog to his cell to scare him. Then they took him to another room to interrogate him. They hit him with their hands and who knows what else, in the face, over 50 times, and hit his back and his legs. They didn’t allow a visit for 10 days. But when we saw him next, his face was still so swollen he could not speak or eat, and he showed us bruises covering his legs.
A friend who visited al-Qaedi around this time said he saw bruises on al-Qaedi’s legs, that his cheeks were swollen and that al-Qaedi told him guards had beaten him with the butts of their guns. Al-Qaedi’s family member said that prison authorities had tried to make him confess that he was not a journalist but was helping “the other side,” but he refused.
After four months at the police station, al-Qaedi was moved to the Habra pretrial detention facility and, in late May, transferred along with the other nine journalists to PSO headquarters. The family has been allowed to visit, but visits are supervised and kept short.