SMA NEWS – LONDON
“This report highlights how prisoners have been used as political pawns with forcible exile and displacement resulting from negotiated prisoner deals by Houthi de-facto authorities.”
The human rights group Amnesty International on Thursday accused Yemen’s Houthi militias of subjecting political detainees and members of the Baha’i minority to horrific torture before forcing them into exile against their will.
Iran-aligned Houthi militias in Yemen “must not use arbitrarily detained prisoners as pawns in ongoing political negotiations,” a new report by Amnesty International.
The militias, who receive support from Iran, have controlled the Yemeni capital Sana’a and most of northern Yemen since 2014. They are currently pressing an offensive to seize Yemen’s gas-rich Marib region and have kept up cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government from Sana’a in a deadly coup.
The London-based non-governmental organisation presented its most recent report as an in-depth investigation into the experiences of a minority of non-fighters, including journalists, political opponents and Baha’i religious minority members, who were released as part of political deals in 2020 after being unlawfully detained and tortured for up to seven years.
“Upon their release, the Baha’is were forced into exile, with the United Nations facilitating their departure and eight other detainees were banished to other parts of the country,” Amnesty said.
“This report highlights how prisoners have been used as political pawns with forcible exile and displacement resulting from negotiated prisoner deals by Houthi de-facto authorities. 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.
“No one should be forced to choose between staying in unlawful detention or abandoning their home or country. Under no circumstances should negotiated prisoner release deals explicitly or implicitly allow for released detainees to be forcibly exiled or displaced from their homes,” Morayef added.
In October 2020, the Houthi militias released 1056 prisoners as part of a politically-negotiated deal co-sponsored by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. While the vast majority were fighters, around two dozen were not.
Prior to that, in July 2020, the Houthis released six members of the Baha’i religious minority. Amnesty International spoke to seven journalists, a government employee, and four Baha’is.
Ten were detained for periods ranging between two and three years before they were informed of the charges brought against them. In nine cases, a court had ordered the detainees’ release in March and April 2020. However, the Houthis continued to arbitrarily detain them for months afterwards, only releasing them later as part of political deals, Amnesty revealed.
— Forcible exile and displacement —
On 30 July 2020, six Baha’i detainees were released after up to seven years of arbitrary detention. Instead of being allowed to return home, the Houthi authorities forced them to leave Yemen, transferring them directly to Sana’a airport. They boarded a UN flight to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, suggesting the UN was aware of their forcible exile. The expelled Baha’is remain banished from Yemen to this day.
Houthi supporters attend a demonstration in Sana’a, Yemen. (AP)
A member of the Baha’i community described how he was taken straight to the airport upon his release, saying “I begged them [the authorities] 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.”
At least eight other detainees released in October 2020 told Amnesty International that the Houthis had transferred them directly from their place of detention to the airport and ordered them to board flights to Aden and Sey’oun airports, areas under the control of the internationally-recognised Yemeni government.
“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,” said one of the journalists who had remained arbitrarily detained for more than five months after a court ordered his release.
In its report, Amnesty stressed exile on account of religious beliefs or political opposition “constitutes an egregious violation of international human rights law. The exile of Baha’i detainees violates the prohibition on forced displacement in international humanitarian law and can amount to a war crime.”
The Houthis “must put an end to forcible exile, which is an outrageous breach of international law and a damning addition to the long list of other violations that Houthi authorities are responsible for. They must allow the return of exiled individuals to their homes,” said Morayef.
— Inhumane conditions —
All 12 former detainees interviewed by Amnesty International were tortured or subjected to other forms of ill-treatment during their interrogation and detention. They described how Houthi militiamen beat them with steel rods, electric cables, weapons and other objects, placed them in stress positions, hosed them with water, repeatedly threatened to kill them or detained them in solitary confinement for periods ranging between 20 days and several months.
Amnesty revealed many of the detainees continue to suffer from physical injuries and chronic health problems as a result of this abuse and the lack of health care they received during their time in detention.
One journalist described how he fainted twice from fear and stress after being threatened by his interrogators.
“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,” he said.
Another detained journalist described being subjected to a terrifying mock execution while held in a counterterrorism branch in Hodeida. He was summoned by guards at night who handcuffed and blindfolded him and showed him a hole in the ground outside 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 into 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’,” he said.
Detainees also said they were tortured repeatedly simply for asking for food or water.
“This report paints a horrifying picture of the catalogue of abuse endured by these former detainees including enforced disappearance, detention in inhumane conditions, torture, denial of medical care, and facing grossly unfair trials on trumped-up charges,” Morayef said.
“As well as putting an immediate end to these abuses, the Houthis must order the immediate and unconditional release of anyone detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights, without exile or banishment,” Morayef added.