Houthis set up network of secret prisons

Houthis set up network of secret prisons
Yemenis are subject to physical abuse inside dozens of secret prisons run by the Ansar Allah group, say rights activists.
4 min read
As the Houthis advanced through Yemen, they set up an extensive prison network [Anadolu]

The mother of a man held prisoner by the Houthis in Yemen is afraid to mention the name of her son, who disappeared when Houthi militias stormed Sanaa on 21 September. The limited information she has about his whereabouts indicates he could be in one of the group's prisons in Sanaa or the governorate of Amran.

The woman, who is in her 50s, only gave a few details about the abduction of her son and the conditions he may be facing in prison, wherever that may be. She asked al-Araby al-Jadeed not to mention the name of her eldest son, a 28-year-old, out of fear he might be harmed.

"My son, who did not belong to any movement, is suffering in jail," she said. "Is hiding people in secret prisons the behaviour of people who call themselves 'Ansar Allah' ["Supporters of God"]?"

     Is hiding people in secret prisons the behaviour of people who call themselves supporters of God?
- Mother of imprisoned 28-year-old

There are many similar stories of people who have disappeared into secret Houthi jails. Their families say the hardest thing is not knowing where their loved ones are.

Many inmates have reportedly been imprisoned on the flimsiest of evidence. Radia al-Mutawakkil, the head of the Muatana Human Rights group, cited a man jailed for more than two years for "not wearing underwear".

Mutawakkil said her calls for access to jails to observe the conditions of inmates had been ignored, and the Houthis continued to build prisons without oversight.

A map of Houthi jails

The head of a Yemeni human rights group, who also did not wish to be named, said that Houthis set up jails almost as soon as they take over new territory. Al-Araby al-Jadeed and the Wethaq Foundation for Civil Orientation have documented the existence of 86 Houthi jails. The governorate of Saada alone contains 61. The Yemeni state, meanwhile, has only one prison in the governorate, a Houthi stronghold.

The governorate of Amran, which recently fell under Houthi control, has 11 Houthi prisons, while the state has one. In Hajjah governorate, the Houthis have nine prisons, while the state has two. However, the Houthis and the state each have five prisons in Sanaa.

Houthi prisons in Sanaa are located in a number of private homes, including one in what is thought to be the home of General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the former commander of the First Armoured Division in the Yemeni army.

Abdul Ghafour, who was released after being imprisoned for 30 days, confirmed the prison's location.

Confidential sources also confirmed the use of houses belonging to Houthis in Sanaa as interrogation centres. The Houthis' political office in central Sanaa, the criminal investigations building and a number of police stations are also being used as the militia's own detention facilities.

The family of Mahfoudh Shayae, a musician, said his group was arrested by the Houthis after firing celebratory shots at a wedding. They were interrogated at a police station over a number of days.

A leading member of a prisoner rights organisation, who refused to give his name or name his organisation, said it had information on torture taking place in Houthi prisons, and that their legal team was working on a detailed report. 


Legal experts believe that groups not only use physical force against their prisoners but also attempt to indoctrinate them.

Ali Khaled Warda was jailed in Saada for insulting the Houthi leader. He was subjected to two weeks of intense interrogation and, later, kinder treatment by Houthi preachers who asked him to read their leader's writings in an attempt to change his mind.

Yemeni law forbids arbitrary arrest, the detention of persons in places other than designated prison facilities, as well as physical and psychological torture.

Judge Mohammed al-Arshi said he was surprised by a discussion regarding the legality of Houthi actions, when the group had effectively assumed the role of the security forces and forcefully occupied security facilities in what he said was an illegal armed group.

Houthi spokesperson Mohammed al-Bakhiti disagreed. "There is no problem in this regard [legally], as we release those we interrogate without falsely accusing them of crimes, as others do. We will not wait for the takfiri [one who accuses another of apostasy] extremists to come and blow us up."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.