Amnesty slams Yemen’s Houthis over forced exile, torture of detainees

Amnesty slams Yemen’s Houthis over forced exile, torture of detainees
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused Yemen’s Houthi rebel group of subjecting political detainees and members of the Baha’i minority to horrific torture before forcing them into exile against their will.
4 min read
27 May, 2021
Amnesty said the Houthis had subjected prisoners to horrific abuse [Getty]

The human rights organisation Amnesty International has accused Yemen’s Houthi rebel group of forcibly exiling and torturing political prisoners, saying in a new report that the Houthis were using them as “political pawns” in negotiations with the internationally-recognized Yemeni government.

The group, which receives support from Iran, has controlled the Yemeni capital Sana’a since 2014.

In a report released on Thursday, Amnesty said that the Houthis had detained journalists, political opponents, and members of the Baha’i religious minority for up to seven years, releasing them only in 2020 as part of a political deal and then forcing them into exile.

“After suffering years of harrowing abuse and unlawful detention, even release did not bring relief to the detainees featured in this report as none of them were able to return home and reunite with their families after years forcibly separated,” said Heba Morayef, Middle East and North Africa Regional Director at Amnesty International.

In October 2020, the Houthis released 1056 prisoners as part of a deal negotiated with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The vast majority of these were captured fighters but around 25 were journalists, members of the Baha’i faith, and other civilians. The Houthis also released six Baha’is in July 2020.

Amnesty spoke to 12 former detainees for its report, saying they “should never have been detained in the first place” – seven journalists, a government employee, and four Baha’is.

The human rights group said that ten of them were detained for between two and three years before being charged, while nine of them were kept in detention even after Houthi courts ordered their release.

Forced exile

One of the Baha’i ex-detainees told Amnesty how he was taken straight to the airport upon being released and put on a UN plane to Ethiopia, without even being able to see his loved ones.

“I begged them to allow me to see my father but they didn’t. He is 80 years old and I won’t be able to see him again. That was the hardest thing in my life, leaving my father behind,” he said.

Six of the Baha’i former detainees remain exiled and banished from Yemen to this day. Eight of the other prisoners released by the Houthis were put on other flights to Aden and Sey’oun – areas of Yemen under the control of the international-recognized Yemeni government.

One of the journalists, who remained in detention for five months even after a Houthi court ordered his release told Amnesty, “We wanted to stay in Sana’a but the Houthis refused to release us unconditionally even though the court ruled in favour of our release. We had no other option but to take the deal and leave the north [area under the control of the Houthis] ...My home and family are in Sana’a. My life is in Sana’a.”

Amnesty said that exiling people on account of religious beliefs or political opposition “constitutes an egregious violation of international human rights law”.

Horrific torture and mock executions

All 12 of the ex-detainees interviewed by Amnesty International said that they were subjected to horrific torture and abuse. They described being beaten with steel rods, electric cables, weapons and other objects, as well as being placed in stress positions and hosed with water. The Houthis also repeatedly threatened to kill them and kept them in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end. Many of them continue to suffer poor health as a result of this abuse.

“The interrogator and others in the room threatened to shoot me. Threatened to kill my parents. They wanted me to name other journalists and students who covered anti-Houthi news… They threatened to … remove my nails one by one. They threatened to give me electric shocks between my legs,” one of the journalists detained by the group said.

Another journalist said that he was subjected to a horrifying mock execution while being held in a Houthi “counterterrorism” branch in Hodeida. Houthi guards handcuffed and blindfolded him before showing him a hole in the ground saying, “this is your grave”.

“I heard the sound of a gunshot in the background. I imagined being hit by a bullet. They kicked me and pushed me in to the hole. I fell on my face. My nose started bleeding and I could taste the blood. I started crying and thinking of my children because I was sure they were going to bury me alive. I was begging them to kill me first. The same man was saying ‘we will bury you here and your family will never know where you are’,” the journalist said.

Other detainees said that they were tortured just for asking for food and water.

“As well as putting an immediate end to these abuses, Houthi authorities must order the immediate and unconditional release of anyone detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights - without exile or banishment,” Morayef said.