(Beirut) – Yemen’s Houthi authorities should immediately provide information about a prominent opposition party member who was arrested on April 4, 2015. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have yet to respond to inquiries from the family of Muhammad Qahtan, 57, a leader of the Islah party, about his whereabouts or their basis for holding him. He should be released unless he has been charged with a credible criminal offense.
“The Houthis have made a habit of ‘disappearing’ people they deem objectionable,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Houthi authorities are responsible for Qahtan’s well-being, and should make sure his family has access to him.”
Qahtan’s son, Abd al-Rahman Qahtan, 28, told Human Rights Watch that on March 31, 12 uniformed Special Security Forces members arrived at Qahtan’s home in Sanaa, the capital. They said that they understood he was planning to travel to the city of Taizz, but forbade him to do so and said that they were placing him under house arrest. They gave no justification for the order, nor clarified under whose authority they were imposing it.
They stationed two pickup trucks and a dozen armed officers outside his home for four days to enforce the order. Qahtan’s son said that on April 4 at 1:30 p.m., he saw three civilian cars pull up and 15 gunmen in civilian clothes get out and walk past the Special Security Forces, who did not stop them. The men told Qahtan’s personal guard to inform Qahtan that he must come with them, and that if he did not, they would blast through the gate of the house and take him by force. Qahtan agreed to leave with the men.
Qahtan’s son said he immediately started contacting influential friends of the family, and was able to visit with his father four days later. His father was being held in the home of Hamid al-Ahmar, a former influential Islah leader who fled the country when the Houthis took control of the capital in September 2014, and whose house the Houthis were then occupying. Qahtan’s son told Human Rights Watch that his father was convinced he would be released within a matter of days. Up until mid-August the family had received some informal assurances that Qahtan was well, but since then the family has been unable to get any news of where or why Qahtan was being held, or his condition.
In April, shortly after the Islah Party publicly endorsed Saudi-led coalition airstrikes against the Houthis that began on March 26, Houthi forces detained without charge, and in some cases forcibly disappeared, more than 100 Islah members, international media reported. Qahtan, a prominent member of the party’s Supreme Committee, its decision-making authority, was arrested at the same time.
Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities take someone into custody and then deny holding them or fail to disclose their fate or whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture, especially when they are detained outside of formal detention facilities such as police jails and prisons.
Since December, the media have reported that Houthi forces were detaining activists and tribal leaders critical of their policies. Human Rights Watch reported on the Houthi’s arbitrary detention and torture of anti-Houthi protesters in Sanaa in January and February.
On August 5, the Houthis took Abd al-Kader al-Guneid into custody at his home in Taizz. Al-Guneid, a medical doctor and human rights activist, is still missing. The Houthis have not given his family any information about where or why he is being held.
“The Houthis should release all those they have wrongfully detained and compensate the victims for the hardship they have caused,” Stork said.