(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.

A Houthi fighter checks a van at a checkpoint on a street in Yemen's capital Sanaa October 21, 2015.

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.’”

Houthi arrests and forced disappearances of alleged Islah supporters have generated palpable fear in the capital. Politicians, activists, lawyers, and journalists tell us they’ve never been more frightened of ending up ‘disappeared.’

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East Director

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

Ahmad al-Qatta
On September 25, 2015, at 6 a.m., 14 or 15 military vehicles surrounded the home of Ahmadal-Qatta, 41, a manager of a computer company and a high-ranking member of the Islah party. Several dozen armed men in Political Security Organization uniforms broke down the gate and banged on the door. Al-Qatta answered. The men rushed in, searched the house, and took CDs, laptops, phones, and large amounts of cash, family members told Human Rights Watch.

The armed men accused al-Qatta of being a senior member of the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. They arrested him; two cousins living at the house, ages 27 and 17; and the house guard, 27. Al-Qatta called his family three days later and told them to give the authorities his laptop, which was at his brother’s home at the time of the search. Houthi officials came to pick up the laptop, returned the money to the family, and told family members that al-Qatta was being held because he was in charge of the anti-Houthi opposition in Sanaa, and because of his role paying salaries to the families of Islah members who had died in politically motivated fighting. On October 10, the authorities released the house guard and cousins but they continued to hold al-Qatta at Political Security headquarters without charge.

Al-Qassim al-Dallale
On August 20, 2015, a man who did not identify himself phoned the mother of Al-Qassim al-Dallale, 19, a journalism student in Sanaa, and said that her son had been detained. The mother, Hayat Qassim Ali, 42, said that she had last spoken to her son by phone at 11 a.m. on August 10. He was about to pass a checkpoint on Sanaa’s outskirts, returning to the capital after visiting her in the city of Ibb, and he told her that all was fine. Then his phone switched off. Two weeks later, her son called to say he was being detained at the CID and that he would get in trouble if she tried to call him back.

In late September, Ali received a letter from her son that had been smuggled out of the detention center. He wrote that after his travel companion told the Houthi guards at the checkpoint on August 10 that they were both studying journalism, the guards took them to the CID. He said they were first held for three days without food or being allowed to use the bathroom. The Houthis accused them of being paid by the opposition and the Al Jazeera news agency to report on recent Al-Qaeda advances in the Marib governorate east of Sanaa. He wrote that interrogators tried to force them to sign a document while they were handcuffed and blindfolded, but that he had no idea what the document said.

Ali said she was able to visit her son at the end of September and found him weak and pale. She provided the head of the CID with a letter from her neighborhood supervisor in Ibb stating that her son was not involved in the opposition, but the Houthis have not released him. “He’s not even a journalist yet, he’s just in his first year of studying,” she said. “The idea that he is writing for Al Jazeera is absurd.”

Islah Party Members

At about 11 a.m. on August 9, 2015, 10 armed men in civilian clothes forcibly entered an apartment in Sanaa where eight Islah party members were meeting, following the shuttering of their offices by authorities in April. The armed men searched the apartment and seized all the phones, laptops, and some personal effects.

The men loaded the six men into a police car and the two women into a taxi, and drove them to al-Judairi police station.

Amat al-Haj, 50, an Education Ministry inspector, told Human Rights Watch that two female officers interrogated her and released her at 9 p.m. “Since I’ve been released, several prominent Houthi journalists have posted my name on Facebook and said that I’m a supporter of the Islamic State,” she said.

Hamid al-Quadi, 45, an Education Ministry inspector, called his wife, Nouriaal Sunaidar, 38, at 4 p.m. to say he had been arrested. She told Human Rights Watch she arrived at the police station at 6 p.m., but the guards did not permit her to see her husband. When she returned the next day, they told her he had been transferred. After a week with no news, she heard a rumor that he was being held at the CID in Sanaa. She stood outside the building calling his name and finally heard him call back from a cell window. Authorities then moved him into incommunicado detention for four or five days. Later she was allowed to visit him every 10 days for several minutes in the presence of a guard. She said her husband told her that the prisoners had little food and were only permitted to use the bathroom, which sometimes had no water, once a day. She last saw him on September 24, but then the prison stopped allowing her visits.

Muhammadal-Adeel, 42, a professor of Arabic at Amran University, also had difficulty informing his wife, Fawzia al-Ghabiri, 38, of his whereabouts. She told Human Rights Watch she figured out 17 days after his arrest that he was being held at the CID. She could visit him for a brief period, but had been prevented from doing so since September 24.

Dr. Abdullah Samawi, 56, a professor of pathology at Sanaa University’s medical college, was also initially held at the police station. When his wife’s brother and cousin went to the police station at 5:30 p.m. that day to inquire about him, authorities arrested them and held them for two days, until their family paid a bribe. The police had taken Dr. Abdullah’s car keys when they arrested him, drove the car to the police station, and have refused to return it.

His wife, Mahfoutha Aqabat, 40, found out 17 days later that her husband was being held at Sanaa’s CID. She was permitted to visit him for up to five minutes at a time in the presence of a guard. Dr. Abdullah told her that he was being held in a three-by-three meter cell with 14 other men and was only allowed to use the bathroom once a day.

When she asked one Houthi leader why they detained her husband, she said he replied, “You are against the country, you support the airstrikes [by the Saudi-led coalition], and we hear you support the Islamic State.”

Ali Hussein al-Huddima, 42, an Education Ministry employee, had previously been arrested in February and held at the CID for 17 days without charge. His wife, Radhiya Saleh al-Garinder, 36, told Human Rights Watch that she went to the police station on August 10, was told that he was not there, then went to CID, where staff also denied holding him. Six days later she found out that the CID was holding him but was only allowed to visit him with her daughters 17 days later. She said that the Houthis have refused to provide her with any details regarding their reasons for detaining her husband.

Abd al-Basit Ghazi
Abd al-Basit Ghazi, a lawyer who represents the families of dozens of detainees, participated in a demonstration outside the CID in Sanaa on May 21, 2015, calling for the release of those arbitrarily detained. He told Human Rights Watch that as the crowd increased, two CID officials invited him inside and told him they would release the detainees if he called on the protesters to disperse. He did, and returned to the building. Thinking they were about to show him the detainees they would release, he accompanied a few guards down to the cells. The guards then confiscated his flash drive, which contained a draft letter to the United Nations special envoy on Yemen concerning arbitrary detentions and other issues and locked him in a cell with another lawyer, Ahmad al-Nimr, who had been detained for four months.

The CID held Ghazi without charge until July 20. They released him only after he signed a statement agreeing not to take part in more protests, nor to contact the UN special envoy. Al-Nimr was released at the same time.

Ghazi said that an international humanitarian agency attempted unsuccessfully to visit him three times, and that his family and lawyer were not allowed to visit him for his first week in detention. He said he had no access to medical services.

A week after his arrest, another lawyer, Muhammad al-Hunahi, led a demonstration outside the CID seeking Ghazi’s release. The guards used the same ruse to persuade him to disband the protest, then held him for 11 days before they released him.

Ammar al-Bilhaj
On July 27, 2015, at 8:30 a.m., three or four pickup trucks, a taxi, and a minibus pulled up to the home of Majed al-Bilhaj, 37, an active member of the Islah party. At least 20 armed men, some in civilian clothes and others in military uniforms, as well as four or five women in civilian dress, led by two Houthi commanders, demanded entry and searched the house, family members told Human Rights Watch.

Majed al-Bilhaj was there, but the men did not recognize him, so instead they arrested his nephew, Ammaral-Bilhaj, 20, a nursing student. The men said they were arresting him to get his uncle to surrender. They drove Ammar al-Bilhaj to the Madbah police station, where he was locked up in a cell with 15 other detainees. He used one of their phones to call his cousins, asking them to come to the station. He said that when his cousins came the guards returned all his possessions to them except his phone, saying it was an “Islamic State phone.”

He bribed the guards to bring him food and water. The authorities released him after five days, saying it was his uncle they wanted.

Muhammad al-Anisi
On April 7, 2015, at 11 a.m., about 40 armed men, some in civilian and other in military clothing, and several women in civilian clothes carrying electroshock weapons, arrived at the home of the secretary general of the Islah Party, Abd al-Wahab al-Anisi, and demanded entry, his daughter, Asiyah al-Anisi, who had left Yemen in January 2015, told Human Rights Watch. A family member told Human Rights Watch that after searching the house, the men took into custody al-Anisi’s son, Muhammad al-Anisi, 36, a human resources manager at a stationery company. They said that as part of the search procedure they were taking him to the CID and that he would be back within a day.

At time of writing he continued to be detained at the CID. One Houthi official told a relative that they were holding him to prevent the Saudi Arabia-led coalition from attacking the CID office, in effect using him as a hostage to shield the building from attack, which is a war crime. Another Houthi leader said that they were detaining him because of his father’s political activities. The relative said that the guards have demanded bribes to allow the family to bring him food.

Sakhr Ali al-Yafi’i
In late July, 2015, three armed Houthi neighbors went to the home of Alial-Yafi’i, 43, and told him that they had caught his son Sakhr al-Yafi’i, 18, ripping down posters with Houthi slogans. He told Human Rights Watch that they warned, “If you don’t control your son, we will.”

On August 14, 2014, at 7 a.m., the same men returned and took the son away, saying they needed him to make a statement at the local police station. It was not until October 15 that his father found out from the father of another inmate at Sanaa’s al-Thawra pretrial detention that Sakhr al-Yafi’i was also being held there. The father said the prison manager told him and their lawyer that an investigative committee at the prison had cleared his son of all charges and that he would be released within days. He had not been released at time of writing.

Khalid Mohsen Hassan Thamer
Khalid Thamer, 25, a gas station employee in Sanaa, did not return home from work on July 28, 2014. His family reported his disappearance to police. However, his relatives began hearing rumors that he was being held by the National Security Bureau. When they made inquiries, supervisors there said they were not holding him. Ten months later, he phoned his family and said he was being held at the bureau. After several attempts, his mother, Anisa Mohsen, 55, was granted a visit with him. She said that her son had lost considerable weight and did not look well. He did not speak to her at all, she said, because they were in the presence of a guard. Since that visit in late July 2014, she has been unable to see her son. She said that Houthi officials told her that he is being investigated for involvement with Al-Qaeda, but they have not brought any charges against him.

Cases of Enforced Disappearance

Fouad Numan al-Awadi
On September 4, 2015, at about 9 p.m., five armed men emerged from a military vehicle and grabbed Fouad al-Awadi, 35, and Muhammad Juma, 28, as they walked on a Sanaa street, forced them into a vehicle, and took them to the al-Judairi police station. That night, the police released Juma, who told al-Awadi’s brother what had happened.

Al-Awadi is executive director of the Chastity and Piety Social Charity Committee, which assists poor couples with wedding costs. Some of the committee’s staff are affiliated with the Islah party. An office guard told Human Rights Watch that armed men, some in military and some in civilian dress, had forced entry into the charity’s offices in April, confiscated property, and forced the charity to shut down.

After Juma told the family what had happened, al-Awadi’s father went to the police station but the officer in charge denied that his son was there. The next morning, the father called the prison’s Houthi representative, who said that his son was there and being treated well. When his brother brought lunch for him, though, the prison guards again denied he was there. The brother was able to speak to one prisoner within earshot, who told him that al-Awadi had been taken away a few hours earlier. The father again called the Houthi representative, who said he had been out when the guards had taken him away, and that he had no idea where he was. He has not been heard from since.

Ahmad al-Jabri
On August 26, 2015, at 4:30 a.m., Ahmad al-Jabri, 35, who worked for a Saudi-based charity that helps orphans, was leaving a local mosque when gunmen accosted him, shoved him into a car and drove off, neighbors told his family.

His brother-in-law told Human Rights Watch that he went to the police station and filed an incident report. A week later, al-Jabri called his family and asked for money and clothing, saying that a supervisor would come to collect both, but he did not provide his location.

The brother-in-law said several Houthi contacts told him that the Political Security Organization was holding al-Jabri. But when he went there officials denied it and said he was being held at the CID, whose officials denied this as well. The Houthi contacts then said that al-Jabri was a suspect and they were waiting for him to confess, but did not specify the crimes he was alleged to have committed.

A week later, a Houthi contact reported that al-Jabri was being held at Zain al-Abdeen mosque in Hiziyaz, which has been used as a makeshift prison. A few days later his wife, Munia al-Yahyawi, 30, and a lawyer, Abd al-Basit Ghazi, went to the mosque. As they pulled up, six Houthi fighters arrived in a pickup truck with three blindfolded men lying in the back of the truck. The fighters got out, took the blindfolds off the men, and dragged them into the mosque. The wife and the lawyer saw a minibus, tailed by a military vehicle, pull up and a fighter from the mosque led a man on crutches off the bus and into the mosque at gunpoint. Al-Yahyawi said that she and the lawyer asked the guard at the door to see her husband. The guard checked a list of about 40 names and told them that her husband was not there. He has not been heard from since.

Majed al-Bilhaj
At 10 p.m. on September 4, 2015, several armored vehicles encircled the home of Majed al-Bilhaj, 37, whose nephew had been detained after armed men came looking for his uncle in July. Authorities had detained him for 15 days in August 2014 before releasing him without charge. On September 4, 2015, more than a dozen armed men and two women came to the door and demanded that Majed al-Bilhaj be turned over. His wife, Hanaa al-Dubii, 37, told them that her husband would come out if someone would guarantee his life. The next day at 6 a.m., the neighborhood supervisor arrived and promised to be the guarantor. Al-Bilhaj was then taken to the al-Jaziri police station.

The armed people returned to the house and searched it, confiscating family members’ phones. Ammar al-Bilhaj, the nephew, and his cousin tried to go to the house but the authorities arrested them and took them to Madbah station, where they were held until that evening. When the nephew went to al-Jaziri station to check on his uncle the guards told him he had been transferred to the CID. Hanaa al-Dubii called the neighborhood supervisor to get information about her husband but he has not answered her calls. The family was unable to obtain any news as to his whereabouts, until he suddenly returned home on December 7.

Mahran Abdel Salam and Mubarak al-Khulidy
On July 3, 2015, at about 5 p.m., four Houthi fighters patrolling the streets of al-Hawta City, the capital of Lahj governorate, entered the bakery owned by Mubarak al-Khulidy, 55, a worker told Human Rights Watch. The Houthis had detained him for several days two months earlier.

Three of the fighters were in military uniform. A man in civilian dress who identified himself as a commander from the Houthi’s northern stronghold, Saada, said the baker was wanted for allegedly baking bread for the anti-Houthi Islamic State. He escaped through the back door, so the Houthi fighters took into custody two bakery workers Abd al-Karim, 55, and Munir Saad, 50. They took them to al-Hawta school, which was being used as a makeshift prison.

When al-Karim’s son went to find his father the next morning, the fighters locked him up in the same classroom with his father and about 20 other men from various cities. That afternoon another bakery employee, Mahran Abdel Salam, 24, was brought to the classroom.

The Houthis released al-Karim later that day. Al-Karim told the bakery owner that the Houthis were still holding al-Karim’s son. The baker turned himself in, and the Houthi’s released al Karim’s son and Saad. The Houthis told al-Karim that they had transferred the baker and his employee, Salam, to al-Anad military base in Lahj, where the Houthis have held many detainees in 2015.

The authorities have not provided clear information on the whereabouts of the two men. Abdullah Qaid, 32, a human rights activist in Sanaa and a relative of Salam, said Salam had called his family on September 18 from an undisclosed number to say, “I am in a prison in Sanaa.” Qaid asked an influential member of the Houthi’s Supreme Revolutionary Committee, created in February as Yemen’s interim authority, where Salam was being held. The committee member said he would raise the case at the highest levels and told Qaid, “Don’t worry, all the southern prisoners here will be exchanged as prisoners of war for our fighters being held in the south.” But no information was provided about the two men until they were released on December 16 as part of a negotiated prisoner swap between the Houthis and southern opposition forces.

Maher Hebba
Maher Hebba, 30, secretary to the planning and international cooperation minister and an imam, left his house in Sanaa at about 10:50 a.m. on June 17, 2015, to run some errands. Minutes later, some neighborhood children came to the house and told his family they had seen armed men put a gun to Hebba’s head, take his glasses and phone, push him into their car, and drive off. Two relatives went to several police stations to find him, without success.

They eventually learned from a Houthi official that he was being held at al-Judairi police station. His wife, Anisa al-Ghorbani, 30, and his children were able to visit him daily. On the sixth day, June 22, he told his wife he was feeling “sick and tired” from his last interrogation.

The next morning, two relatives were driving up to the police station and saw men in civilian dress push Hebba into a military vehicle and drive off. The next day, Anisa went to the police station, where police told her that her husband had left a free man. They told her that her brother, who had been making inquiries about her husband, should come in for questioning. When he arrived, the police locked him up and told his sister, “This is what we do to anyone who asks about Maher.” They released Anisa’s brother three hours later, after he signed a document stating he would not ask any more questions about Hebba.

Anisa said that she and her lawyer returned to the police station one last time the next day to ask for copies of her husband’s file and release letter. The police said they could not find any file on him, and the supervisor claimed he was asleep when Hebba was allegedly released.

The following day a Houthi official told Anisa that he was being held at the CID. But officials there denied they were holding him. The same Houthi official then said Hebba was being held at the Political Security Organization. Anisa said she started taking clothes, food, and other items to the organization’s headquarters for her husband. The guards accepted them but after a few weeks the supervisor told her he was never there. They returned some of the items she had brought in a bag with a sticker with his name on it and underneath the word “basement.” He had not been seen or heard from at time of writing.

On June 16, 2015, Abdullah (a pseudonym), was driving a minibus through Sanaa with his 8-year-old son and three young relatives to deliver fruit on behalf of a charity for orphans. His brother Muhammad (a pseudonym) told Human Rights Watch that Abdullah called him at 9 a.m. from a Houthi checkpoint in the Hiziyaz neighborhood saying that guards there were inspecting the boxes of fruit. Muhammed tried calling Abdullah at noon but his phone was off. That night, two Houthi checkpoint guards arrived at Muhammad’s home in the northern governorate of Rayma in the minibus with the four children. They did not tell him what had happened to his brother. The children told Muhammad that they were kept at the checkpoint until sunset, before being driven back home, with Abdullah left behind. At time of writing, the family had received no news of Abdullah’s whereabouts.

Muhammad said that he has contacted many Houthi representatives who have given various reasons for Abdullah’s detention, including that he is a terrorist, was transporting a terrorist, or belongs to the Islah party. Muhammad acknowledged that other members of their family belonged to Islah but said Abdullah did not.

Yahya al-Aziri
Yahya al-Aziri, 45, was a commander in the Presidential Guard stationed at Sanaa’s state television station in September 2014, when the Houthis took the capital by force, his wife, Zahra Abu Sa`d, 37, told Human Rights Watch. Soldiers in his unit told Sa`d that on September 20, 2014, they saw Houthi fighters take him from the television station, during a battle. His wife said that Qadi Sharai, a local Houthi leader, later told her that the fighters first brought her husband to his house for medical treatment because he had been wounded in the fighting and then took him away about a month later to an undisclosed location.

Al-Aziri’s wife said that Muhammadal-Adla, 42, a fellow Presidential Guard, contacted her after the Houthis released him in late September. He told her that the previous July, guards at the stadium in Amran where they were holding many prisoners announced on a loudspeaker the names of dozens of prisoners who were up for release. He heard her husband’s name among them, though he had not known al-Aziri was being held there.

Weeks later, the mother of a prisoner at Matra Prison in the northern governorate of Saada contacted Abu Sa`d to say that on her last visit she heard from her son that al-Aziri was being held there, was in good health, and had asked her to contact his wife on his behalf. She has not heard from him since.