(Beirut) – Yemen’s Houthi authorities should immediately provide information about two protesters forcibly disappeared since mass arrests in the city of Ibb on October 12, 2015. Ameen al-Shafaq and Antar al-Mubarizy should be immediately released unless the authorities provide a lawful basis for holding them.
The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, should also compensate protesters who were tortured or ill-treated while in detention and appropriately punish those responsible.
“The Houthis should understand that exercising authority means respecting the human rights of those under their control,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “They should produce the two protesters who were ‘disappeared’ and compensate the others who were tortured.”
On the evening of October 12, 34 journalists and activists held a meeting on the sixth floor of the Garden Hotel in Ibb to plan a protest against the Houthis for blocking aid from non-Houthi-controlled neighborhoods in the bordering governorate of Taizz. The plan was to peacefully march from Ibb to Taizz the next morning under the slogan, “A drop of water can save more lives than a gun barrel or a bullet.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed six men who attended the meeting. They said that at about 5 p.m., six armed men in civilian dress stormed into the meeting. The gunmen detained 29 people, while five others managed to escape. One of those who escaped said he saw at least 50 armed men in and around the hotel, as well as four military vehicles, two police vans, and two civilian cars parked outside.
The armed men confiscated the detainees’ phones, wallets, glasses, and other items. “They blindfolded us with our own scarves and handcuffed us,” said Ahmad Kharsan, one of the meeting organizers. Then the men took the detainees to the headquarters in Ibb of the Political Security Organization (PSO), one of Yemen’s main intelligence agencies.
One of those held told Human Rights Watch:
They locked us all together in a 4x5 meter cell. They would only let us take short bathroom breaks three times a day. I fainted twice in the first two days because of health problems. They took me into a different room for my two interrogations, which lasted for about one or one-and-a-half hours. During that time they asked me what I do for a living, why I support the Islamic State, and whether we are getting financial support from Islah [Yemeni Sunni Islamist party opposed to the Houthis], the United Arab Emirates, or Saudi Arabia [countries involved in military operations against the Houthis]. They kept me blindfolded and kept hitting my back, sometimes with a stick and sometimes with their bare hands. The second time, they told me that if I didn’t start confessing they would electrocute or hang me.
Another detainee, Adel Taha, said that he shared a cell with another protester, who, after returning from an interrogation on October 13, had multiple marks on his back. He told Taha that his interrogators had beaten him.
Taha said that during his interrogation on the fourth day after their arrest, three officers accused him of delivering weapons to the “resistance.” He alleged that one beat him with various items, including a club; applied electric shock for up to half a minute more than 50 times; and punched and kicked him in the face, stomach, and chest. He estimated the interrogation lasted for at least an hour. “I could not sleep lying down for the next three days,” he said. “There are a lot of torture details that I am not ready to talk about. I’m on medication now and suffering from different complications. I’m visiting the doctor regularly to try to cope with what happened.” He showed Human Rights Watch photos of severe bruising to his back and thigh.
Taha said that when guards returned him to his cell, they tied his leg to a man with a mental disability, who would kick him whenever he was about to fall asleep. The guards told Taha that the man had strangled another prisoner to death in his sleep.
Kharsan, the meeting organizer said that while he was blindfolded, his interrogators threatened to electrocute him or throw him into pools of freezing or boiling water. They questioned him about the planning of the protest, who was supporting the demonstrators, his view of the Houthis, and about Islah. Another detainee said that he was required to sign a contract promising not to harm the interests of national security to secure his release.
During their detention, the men had no access to family members or legal counsel.
Within a week, the authorities released 23 of the detainees, and they released four more over the following weeks. But they never released al-Shafaq, an Education Ministry director and an Islah youth leader, and al-Mubarizy, an engineer at Yemen Mobile. Guards told their family members that both were moved from the PSO headquarters on October 30, but would not say where they were now detained. The families have had no further news of the men’s whereabouts.
Human Rights Watch has previously reported on arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances by the Houthis in the capital, Sanaa, and other areas that they have controlled since late 2014. These have included numerous political opposition figures, activists, and journalists, many of whom were arrested because of their alleged links to Islah.
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 forcibly 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 extrajudicial execution, torture, and other ill-treatment, especially when they are detained outside formal detention facilities, such as police jails and prisons.
The United Nations Human Rights Council should create an independent, international inquiry into alleged violations of the laws of war by all sides to the conflict in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Houthis should demonstrate that they are capable of running cities and towns under their authority in accordance with basic human rights standards,” Stork said. “So far they haven’t.”