(Beirut) – Houthi authorities in Yemen have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared dozens of people in the capital, Sanaa. The Houthi authorities should safeguard the rights of everyone in detention, immediately release all those held arbitrarily, and grant family members, lawyers, and independent monitors immediate access to detention sites to reduce the risk of abuse.
Human Rights Watch documented the Houthis’ arbitrary or abusive detention of at least 35 people from August 2014 through October 2015, 27 of whom remain in custody. Families have not been able to find out the whereabouts of seven believed to have been forcibly disappeared. Many appear to have been arrested because of their links to Islah, a Sunni political party that is opposed to the Zaidi Shia Houthis. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have controlled Sanaa and other areas of Yemen since September 2014.
“Houthi arrests and forced disappearances of alleged Islah supporters have generated palpable fear in the capital,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Politicians, activists, lawyers, and journalists tell us they’ve never been more frightened of ending up ‘disappeared.’”
Human Rights Watch has obtained copies of four letters, dated September and October 2015, from two of Sanaa’s public prosecutors, directed to the director-general of the police, the solicitor general, the security director of the capital, and the acting director of the eastern district. These letters raise the cases of specific detainees being held without charge, as well as the general issue of arrests, and call on the relevant authorities to abide by prosecution release orders.
Abdul Basit Ghazi, a Yemeni lawyer who heads the Defense Authority of the Abductees and Prisoners, which provides legal representation to detainees, told Human Rights Watch his organization is working on behalf of more than 800 detainees and disappeared individuals, most of whom belong to the Islah party. He said that based on information he has gathered from sources knowledgeable about detentions, the Houthis were holding at least 250 at al-Thawra pretrial detention facility, 180 at Habra pretrial detention facility, 167 at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), 165 opposition figures at Sanaa Central Prison, 73 at the Political Security Organization’s headquarters, 20 at al-Judairi police station, 10 at one of the homes of the former First Armored Division commander, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and an unknown number at Zain al-Abdeen mosque in Hiziyaz.
Human Rights Watch documented cases of apparent arbitrary detention at all of those locations except Habra pretrial detention facility, the home of al-Ahmar, and Sanaa Central Prison. Authorities denied a Human Rights Watch request to visit Sanaa Central Prison. Houthi authorities monitored the movements of Human Rights Watch staff in Sanaa during their research into this issue in late October.
In addition to political opponents, the Houthis have targeted journalists reporting for opposition outlets. At 4 a.m. on June 9, about 20 armed police and military forces arrested nine journalists working for different opposition media outlets who were using a room in the Qasr al-Ahlam Hotel in Sanaa as an office, because the hotel generator provided a source of power. The authorities held them for two days at two different police stations before transferring them to the CID, and then to al-Thawra pretrial detention facility where they remain at the time of this writing. The authorities also arrested four independent journalists between April and October. Family members were unaware of the location of two of them, while authorities were holding one at the CID and another at Habra pretrial detention facility. Houthi authorities have not brought charges against any of the 13 journalists in custody.
A source from Sanaa Central Prison confirmed to Human Rights Watch that until a big prisoner swap on December 16, it held at least 450 detainees brought there by the Houthis. The source said these prisoners are being kept apart from the other prisoners, are overseen only by Houthi guards, and have no contact with regular prison staff. The source said that the prison is not receiving any additional food rations for these prisoners, nor have Houthi prison staff provided them with blankets, mattresses, or pillows, as far as he is aware.
Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the numbers of people detained at the other locations.
Abdullah Qaid, 32, a human rights activist in Sanaa and relative of one person forcibly disappeared, obtained and gave Human Rights Watch a copy of a pledge that guarantors have had to sign on behalf of some prisoners in Sanaa detention facilities for them to be released. It requires them to promise that the detainee will not affiliate with any “suspicious groups.” If they do, the guarantor must produce the person to the authorities “as a prisoner or corpse,” and allow the state to “confiscate all of [the guarantor’s] assets, and commercial property without need for a trial.”
While Houthi authorities may take appropriate measures to address security concerns during the armed conflict in Yemen, international human rights law protects basic rights, including the right not to be arbitrarily detained, mistreated, or “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.
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.
“At a time when the Houthis are fighting to remain key power brokers in Yemen, they should recognize that instilling fear in the population is no way to govern,” Stork said. “The Houthis should take the necessary steps to ensure that no one is held unlawfully and families have access to their loved ones.”
Cases of Arbitrary Detention
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