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Yemen: Judge Arrested After Criticizing Houthis

Judge in Sanaa Detained After Comments about Red Sea Attacks

The Galaxy Leader, a ship seized by the Houthi armed group on November 19, 2023, at a port on the Red Sea in Yemen’s Hodeidah governorate, November 22, 2023.  © 2023 AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – The Houthis have arrested a judge in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, most likely because of his posts on X, formally Twitter, criticizing Houthi actions in the Red Sea, Human Rights Watch said today. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, threaten, detain, and imprison people who criticize them in the areas of Yemen that they control.

“While the Houthis are busy promoting an image to the world that they are defending Palestinians in Gaza against Israel’s atrocities, they are ruthlessly silencing Yemenis under their rule who dare to criticize them,” said Niku Jafarnia, Yemen and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The demand of fundamental human rights for Palestinians also applies to Yemenis.”

Houthi forces arrested the judge, Abdulwahab Qatran, on January 2, 2024, at his house in Sanaa. Qatran’s son, Mohammed, posted a video on X in which he said that forces belonging to the Houthi Security and Intelligence department arrived at the family’s home around 10:00 a.m., entered their house by force, threatened the judge and his family, and forced them into waiting military vehicles. Security and Intelligence agents then held and interrogated them for hours.

They then arrested Judge Qatran and took him to an undisclosed location, while releasing the rest of his family. Mohammed said in the video that the Houthis took the family’s phones and computers and had not returned them. In the video’s background, books, papers, and other household items are scattered across the floor, which Mohammed said happened during the arrest.

As security forces took the family away, the forces showed neighbors who were watching bottles of alcohol that they had allegedly discovered, justifying the judge’s arrest by claiming that he was making and drinking alcohol.

“[Houthi forces] showed us alcohol bottles that we’ve never seen—they claimed they found them in our house,” Mohammed said. “Huge amounts of alcohol in so many different kinds that I’ve never seen before.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to Qatran’s son and three other people familiar with Qatran’s case who said they believed he was arrested because of his criticism of the Houthis, and not for reasons related to alcohol. Human Rights Watch reviewed five videos recorded by his son and posted online, as well as other materials published by other human rights activists and  civil society organizations.

A man who met with the Security and Intelligence Department about Qatran’s case told Human Rights Watch that initially, the department told him that the judge’s arrest had been related to alcohol. However, he said that later in the meeting, an official told him: “If you have a rooster that bothers you by his yelling all the time, what you will do with it?” “That was when we knew his arrest was because of his political and rights activism,” the man said.

Judge Qatran is well known for his positions against the Houthis and their policies. He had previously written several posts on his X account about the Houthis’ human rights violations. “You are not entitled on behalf of Yemenis to fight anyone, do you understand?!” the judge wrote on X on December 31, 2023. A pro-Houthi account wrote a post shortly afterward calling out Qatran by name, saying: “Today is not like yesterday, today our battle is directly with the U.S. and there is no place for hypocrites like you … You have to choose either to stand with the state or with the Americans.”

Riyadh al-Dubai, a human rights activist, told Human Rights Watch: “Although Qatran is a judge, he refused to go to work because of his position against [the] Houthis’ policies and the way they run governmental institutions.” He said that the Houthis arrested Qatran because of his broader political and legal activism and that his posts about the Red Sea attacks “were just the straw that broke the camel's back.”

“The Houthis have nothing to do with the war in Gaza,” Dubai said. “They’re just utilizing the Palestinian cause to run from their internal obligations toward the Yemenis ... [including] providing salaries and services to people under their control.”

After the initial arrest, Houthi authorities did not tell Judge Qatran’s family where they had taken him for three days. On January 5, a friend of the judge went to the Security and Intelligence Department office, where they told him that Judge Qatran was detained at their office, and that his family could visit him.

However, when Mohammed and his uncle went to visit the judge, the authorities only allowed Mohammed to enter. Family members had not been allowed to visit or speak to him after that, Mohammed said in videos, until January 28, when Qatran’s other son, Ahmed, received a 20-second phone call in which Qatran told him “I’m dead.”

On January 15 and 18, Mohammed submitted official complaints to the Houthis’ Supreme Judicial Council and to the Houthis’ human rights minister, respectively, demanding his father’s release. He has not received a response.

Arresting a person without a warrant and clear charges is a violation under the Yemeni Criminal Procedures law, article 132. Judges also have additional legal protections under Yemeni law. The 1991 Yemeni Law of Judicial Authority, article 87, says that “judges shouldn’t be arrested or detained temporarily unless there is an official warrant from the supreme judicial council.”

Judge Qatran’s arrest is one apparent example of a broader pattern of Houthi crackdowns on people’s rights to freedom of expression, as well as a pattern of abuse against activists and perceived political opponents. Houthi forces have arbitrarily detained, disappeared, assaulted, and tortured activists, journalists, and students, and have often charged them with unsubstantiated violations unrelated to free expression, in violation of their rights to a fair trial, liberty, and security.

Most recently, the Houthis sentenced to death Fatima al-Arwali, a 35-year-old human rights activist who was forcibly disappeared by Houthi forces in Taizz on August 12, 2022, on charges of espionage. Arwali has not been provided with adequate access to legal counsel, and authorities have repeatedly denied her family members’ requests to visit her and call her.

Houthis have also systematically arrested and disappeared Bahais and forced them into exile, including most recently when they forcibly disappeared 17 people attending a Bahai gathering. As of January 25, five of these 17 people remained arbitrarily detained.

In their 2023 report, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen stated that they had documented many cases involving arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture, adding that “most violations investigated by the Panel were attributed to the Houthis.”

Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni civil society organization, documented 1,482 cases of arbitrary detention and 596 cases of enforced disappearance by Houthi authorities between 2015 and April 2023.

Enforced disappearances, in which the authorities detain a person and then refuse to acknowledge their whereabouts or situation when asked, are serious crimes under international law and are prohibited at all times under both international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

“People across Houthi territories don’t have adequate food and water; solving that should be the Houthis’ priority, not chasing down every person who speaks out against them,” Jafarnia said.

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