(Beirut) – Houthi authorities in Yemen have closed several dozen nongovernmental organizations and arbitrarily detained numerous activists since taking over the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014. Human Rights Watch interviewed activists with four Sanaa-based organizations that the Houthis closed down in April 2015, apparently because of their links to the Islah political party, which is opposed to the Houthis.
The Yemen office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights told Human Rights Watch that since September 2014, the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have raided and shut down 33 groups in Sanaa, in many cases confiscating assets and equipment. Most of these groups have been prevented from reopening, particularly those affiliated with Islah, the high commissioner’s office said.
“The Houthis’ closure of organizations comes in the midst of a campaign of arrests and enforced disappearances of activists, political opposition figures and journalists,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “This is one more repressive Houthi tactic to close down democratic space in the areas they control.”
The Houthis should immediately allow nongovernmental groups to operate freely, compensate groups whose offices were looted, and release activists being detained for peaceful conduct, Human Rights Watch said. While Houthi authorities may take appropriate measures to address security concerns during the armed conflict in Yemen, international human rights law protects basic rights.
Three of the organizations whose closing Human Rights Watch documented remain shut, and three staff members from two of them were briefly detained. Heads of other organizations that were shut down declined to speak to Human Rights Watch, fearing further retribution. Houthi authorities closely monitored the movements of Human Rights Watch staff conducting interviews in Sanaa in late October 2015.
Of the four cases that Human Rights Watch documented, one was affiliated with Islah and the three others had some staff members who belonged to the party. Houthi forces demanded entry to the groups’ premises and stationed guards at the entrances. The Houthis detained, without charge, the director of the Sanaa branch of the Islah-affiliated Charitable Society for Social Welfare for one week, and two guards working for the Chastity and Piety Social Charity Committee, one for a day and the other for four days. All four individuals said that the Houthis had looted their offices. The Charitable Society for Social Welfare was permitted to reopen in July, but the authorities prevented the other groups from reopening, stationing armed guards at their premises for varying periods.
In April, shortly after Islah publicly endorsed the 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. Among those taken into custody was Muhammad Qahtan, 57, an Islah leader, on April 4. His family still has no information about his whereabouts or well-being.
Human Rights Watch also documented the Houthis’ enforced disappearance of Abd al-Kader al-Guneid, a physician and human rights activist, in Taizz, on August 5. The Houthis have yet to provide his family any information about his whereabouts or situation.
In November, Houthi officials barred Dr. Shafiqa al-Wahsh, director of the quasi-governmental Women’s National Committee, from traveling outside the country so she could attend preparatory Yemeni peace talk meetings in the region.
“The Houthis have been running Sanaa for a year and should demonstrate respect for basic rights and freedoms like any other ruling authority,” Stork said.
Groups Whose Closing Human Rights Watch Documented
Association of Social Solidarity Charity
Waleed Ahmad Ali al-Khawi, 28, is a member of the administrative commission of the Association of Social Solidarity Charity, which provides free health care and other charitable activities like giving clothes to orphans. He told Human Rights Watch that some of its staff are affiliated with the Islah party. Because the organization only works in the evening, no staff members were there when armed Houthi forces broke into the apartment that serves as the group’s headquarters. However, neighbors told him that at 10 a.m. on April 2, 2015, about 15 to 20 Houthis, some in military uniform, arrived in several vehicles and broke into the offices. When they left, they padlocked the doors.
The Houthis returned on June 23, moving members into the premises, al-Khawi said. Some of the neighbors became friendly with the armed men and sat inside the offices with them to chew qat, a plant that many Yemenis chew as a mild stimulant. They told al-Khawi that they saw the Houthi men remove furniture, blankets, computers, and other items. At 2 p.m. on June 25, al-Khawi was watching the building from across the street and saw them remove 10 chairs and two or three desks, taking them away in a minibus. When al-Khawi reported the thefts at a local police station, the officer told him that the property now belonged to the Houthi neighborhood supervisor.
Al-Khawi said, in late October, that there were between one and six guards outside the offices on a daily basis in a mix of military and civilian dress.
Renaissance Homeland Foundation
The Renaissance Homeland Foundation provides health and development workshops for youth. The executive director, Ibrahim Rizq al-Jassar, 34, said that some of its staff are affiliated with the Islah party. Al-Jassar told Human Rights Watch that he heard from neighbors that at 10 a.m. on April 2, 2015, about 20 armed Houthis, in a mix of military uniforms and civilian dress, arrived in several vehicles at the group’s offices, in an apartment facing the Association of Social Solidarity Charity’s offices. The Houthis were accompanied by the neighborhood supervisor, a local leader tasked by the Houthis with monitoring neighborhood developments and enforcing law and order. No staff were present at the time.
A neighbor who was watching the events told Human Rights Watch that the armed men broke into and searched the offices. One of the armed men told the neighbor they were searching because they had heard that both the Association of Social Solidarity Charity and the Renaissance Homeland Foundation had been hiding weapons in their premises.
The neighbor said that the Houthis left that day without removing anything from the apartment. However, over the next two months, groups of armed Houthis returned and incrementally removed computers, chairs, desks, and other office items. The neighbor and another local resident said that in late June, they saw the men removing a large number of chairs and desks and loading them into a military vehicle and driving off. Since then, guards and a military vehicle have remained posted outside the entrance to the building.
The second neighbor told Human Rights Watch that on November 24, at 7 p.m.:
I was leaving the mosque, walking along a side street, and passed the military vehicle always parked outside [the Renaissance Homeland Foundation]. I saw four masked gunmen exit the apartment building leading three young, blindfolded men at gunpoint. I had heard the rumors that they were using the NGO offices as a military operations center and then as a prison, but I didn’t really believe them until [then].
Charitable Society for Social Welfare
Hayal Saad Muhammad, 32, deputy director of the Sanaa branch of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, the charitable wing of the Islah party, told Human Rights Watch that at 4 p.m. on April 10, 2015, six armed men, four in Republican Guard uniforms and two in civilian dress, arrived at the organization’s Sanaa headquarters. They insisted that the guard should let them enter, searched the premises, and demanded that the director, Ahmed al-Harbi, 40, who was at home at the time, come to the headquarters. When al-Harbi arrived, they arrested him and detained him at the local police station for a week without charge.
Muhammad said that for three months, armed guards in military uniforms linked to units that protect government installations blocked staff, including himself, from entering the building. They finally left and permitted the staff to regain access on July 14.
Muhammad said that when they were able to enter, they found many items missing, including drugs and medical equipment worth US$18,900, three cylinders of cooking gas, three cylinders of generator fuel – the value for both of which was rapidly rising because of shortages – as well as children’s clothing and school bags intended as gifts for orphans at the end of Ramadan. The safe had been shot at with several rounds even though al-Harbi said he had already opened it to show there was nothing inside when Houthi forces demanded that he do so.
Chastity and Piety Social Charity Committee
Ammar Muhammad Nasser al-Theeb, 31, is director of social welfare at the Chastity and Piety Social Charity Committee, an organization that assists poor couples with wedding costs. Al-Theeb said that some of the organization’s staff are affiliated with the Islah party. He told Human Rights Watch that at 9 p.m. on April 4, 2015, between 30 to 45 armed men, wearing a mix of civilian and military dress, arrived at their offices. The guard who was there at the time, Muhammed Ali Yaghnam, 31, told Human Rights Watch that the gunmen demanded entry to the building and then conducted a search, including of the living quarters he shared with his wife in the same building, without allowing him to be present.
Yaghnam watched them confiscate office equipment, including 12 computer hard drives, a video camera, a camera, some chargers for electronic devices, modems, and employee and other office files. They arrested Yaghnam, whom they held overnight, and another guard, Ahmed Ali al-Qadiri, 32, whom they held for four days at the local police station before releasing him without charge.
Yaghnam told Human Rights Watch that he returned to the building the day he was released:
They let me enter but there were three guys sleeping in my apartment, and they didn’t let me take any food, my mattress, or even my blankets. They only allowed me to take my wife’s suitcase, which contained her clothes but they had broken the suitcase lock. There was money inside the apartment that had gone missing. It is not fair! They are sleeping and chewing qat inside my house and I don’t have a place to sleep.
Al-Theeb said that there were about six guards outside the building for the next two months, before the owner of the building demanded that either the Houthis start paying rent or leave. Al-Theeb said that the landlord told him they had left and removed their padlocks. The organization has not resumed its activities out of fear, he said. It also runs a free medical clinic, the Bilal Medical Center. Houthi forces arrived at the clinic on April 10 and announced that it must close, and stationed two armed guards in civilian dress at the door. Al-Theeb said a neighbor told him that in mid-June at about 2 a.m., he saw many men arrive with a big truck and load items from the clinic into the truck. Guards remain stationed at the entrance, and so staff from the clinic have not been able to return to verify what had been taken, al-Theeb said.