Skip to main content

Yemen: Houthis Disappear Dozens of UN, Civil Society Staff

Release Detainees; End Arbitrary Arrests and Enforced Disappearances

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, meets with local officials in Taizz, Yemen, February 12, 2024. (C) 2024 Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP via Getty Images
  • Houthis have since the end of May arbitrarily arrested dozens of civil society and UN staff without due process, and have held them incommunicado, amounting to enforced disappearance.
  • These detentions followed Yemeni government’s decision to move major banks out of Houthi-controlled territory. Houthis have a history of using detainees as bargaining chips.
  • Houthis should immediately release everyone arbitrarily detained. The international community should pressure the Houthis to release the detainees and cease their broader crackdown on civil society.

(Amman) – Houthi security forces have, since May 31, 2024, arrested and forcibly disappeared dozens of people, including at least 13 United Nations staff and many employees of nongovernmental organizations operating in Houthi-controlled territories, Human Rights Watch said today. The arbitrary arrests appear to be based on the detainees’ present or past employment.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, carried out these arbitrary arrests while widespread hunger and thirst remain rampant across Yemen, including in areas they control, and during a recent, major cholera outbreak that the Houthis hid for several months, based on ongoing Human Rights Watch research.

“The Houthis are using arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances as a political tool at a time when the people living in their territories lack even the most basic needs,” said Niku Jafarnia, Yemen and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Houthis should immediately release all of these people, many of whom have spent their careers working to improve their country.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to 20 people with knowledge of the arrests, as well as 4 Yemen analysts. Their identities are not being revealed for their safety, as they fear reprisals. Human Rights Watch also reviewed documents, videos, social media, and media reports, voice recordings, and other materials relevant to the detentions.

Houthi forces did not present search or arrest warrants at the time of arrest, and the authorities have refused to tell families where those arrested are being held, meaning that these acts amount to enforced disappearances. They have held detainees incommunicado, without access to lawyers or their families. On June 19, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Houthi human rights office with questions regarding the arrests and concerns about the apparent absence of any due process. The Houthis have not responded. 

As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, no charges have been brought against the people detained. However, Houthi authorities have a long history of bringing dubious charges against detained people, including espionage.

Starting on June 10, Houthi authorities released a series of videos and curated social media posts on the Houthi-affiliated TV channel, Al-Masirah, and its related social media platforms. These show 10 Yemeni men who were detained between 2021 and 2023. Most of them have been held incommunicado.

The videos show the men confessing that they were spying for the United States and Israel, but there is a high risk that these confessions were coerced. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the Houthis’ use of torture to obtain confessions. Publishing videos of confessions undermines the right to fair trial and lacks credibility.

Though the Houthis have not said whether the current arrests are linked to the videos and their related announcements of uncovering a “spy network,” sources, including analysts, said that they feared that the Houthis were trying to frame the recently detained people as spies.

Yemen analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch also suggested political motives for the arrests. The Yemeni government-controlled central bank issued a decision on May 30 to end transactions with six banks within Houthi territories that refused to move their headquarters to Aden, which is under the control of the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The decision has the potential for a significant negative economic impact on Houthi-controlled territories. Analysts said that the arrests may be an attempt to put pressure on the Yemeni government to reverse the decision.

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.

All of the detainees are Yemenis. The Houthis have told families not to speak out about the detention of their family members, in many cases saying that detainees will be released as soon as the Houthis have completed their interrogations, as long as they do not find anything.

“[The Houthis] know there will not be an [international] escalation from the arrest of the Yemenis, but if they arrested international staff there will be a huge escalation from the international community,” said one source.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, have called for the release of all UN and nongovernmental organization staff, as have other senior UN officials.

However, some sources also told Human Rights Watch that the UN agencies or organizations where detainees had been working had not made efforts to contact detainees’ families, including those living abroad who could have been safely reached. “Continuing to work like business as usual cannot be done,” a source said. “The abductees that were part of the confessions yesterday, there was no huge demand for their release, barely anything was said by UN agencies,” referring to those shown in videos. 

One political analyst said that “[T]he wider weak international reaction … proves that from [the Houthis’] perspective, they did the right thing.”

It is imperative for the United Nations, independent groups working in Yemen, and concerned governments to take every action in their power to ensure the release of those detained, Human Rights watch said. Oman, which has been a mediator in negotiations between the Houthis and other warring parties, should work with other countries collectively to ensure that the Houthis release the detainees.

“The international community should be doing everything in their power to ensure that these people are immediately released,” Jafarnia said. “Many of them have been invaluable members of Yemeni civil society organizations and staff in UN agencies and nongovernmental international groups.”


Based on interviews with informed sources, Human Rights Watch found that, starting on the morning of Friday, May 31, Houthi forces began arresting employees of several nongovernmental organizations, raiding their homes and offices, though a few arrests were before that date. According to one source, more than 60 people had been arrested as of June 12.

In one case, the Houthis also detained the husband and two children – a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old – of a woman who works with a civil society organization, a source said.

In all but one case, Houthi forces did not tell relatives where they were taking the person arrested, and none have had contact with their family members since they were arrested, as far as Human Rights Watch could determine. With the exception of one case, the authorities did not tell relatives where their loved ones have been detained when asked. Such conditions amount to enforced disappearance.

On June 18, Volker Türk said that the six staff members from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) who had been detained “have not had contact with their families, nor has the UN been able to access them.” In separate statements, he added that two other staff, who have been “held incommunicado, without any due process,” and two staff from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), had “already been arbitrarily detained for a lengthy period.”

“I can’t even describe the fear and concern that all of these people had for their safety and well-being,” one source said. “[The head of one organization] couldn’t eat for an entire week.” 

While the conditions of those disappeared remains unknown, many sources said that the Houthis had not allowed family members to send needed medicines for the detainees, including for serious medical conditions. Human Rights Watch has documented the Houthis’ use of torture in detention since 2015.

Since the initial raids and arrests on May 31 and June 6, the Houthis have continued arresting people, prompting many people in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen to flee their territory. 

One person who left Sanaa said, “Although I managed to flee.… I couldn’t sleep … I’ve had panic attacks every day since I fled from Sanaa … I’m very worr[ied] about my friends and colleagues in Sanaa who are just waiting for Houthis to arrest them.” 

Since late 2014, when Houthi forces occupied Sanaa, and much of Yemen, Houthis have detained and forcibly disappeared hundreds of people. Many organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have documented the Houthis’ use of torture in detention.

The Houthis are not alone in these violations. Throughout the conflict, all parties have carried out enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests. Men and women have been targeted for their political and religious beliefs, or their membership in a religious or political group. Journalists, other media professionals, aid workers, and human rights defenders have also been targeted.

Some have been given grossly unfair trials on trumped-up or abusive charges and have been effectively used as bargaining chips to exchange detainees. Many have been held incommunicado, tortured, and subjected to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

Unlawful House Raids, Arbitrary Arrests

Human Rights Watch documented the cases of 31 people – nearly all employees of national and international nongovernmental organizations and the UN – arrested by Houthi security forces between May 31 and June 12. Sources tracking the arrests say the total number of such arrests is well over 60, and possibly much higher.

As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine in the cases documented, none of the security forces presented arrest or search warrants, although in at least two cases they appeared to produce a substitute legal justification for the arrest. Arresting a person without a warrant and clear charges is a violation under Article 132 of the Yemeni Criminal Procedures Law. 

The cases Human Rights Watch reviewed followed a similar pattern. Houthi forces arrived unannounced at the homes of those they were aiming to arrest with several armored vehicles and an average of about 10 to 30 armed men. Often, two or three women from the Zaynabiyat, the Houthis’ female militia, accompanied the forces. Almost all forces were wearing military uniforms and head and face coverings, sometimes with only their eyes showing. In many cases, the forces arrived early in the morning while families were still asleep.

Houthi forces would bang on the door, and once the door was open, they would immediately enter the homes and take family members into different rooms. In many cases, forces pulled the person they wanted to arrest into a separate room and interrogated them. While some forces were conducting interrogations, other forces raided the home, one room at a time, taking laptops, hard drives, cell phones, documents, and in some cases cash, cars, and other items.

In most of the cases, when the individual arrested was a male, female relatives were also present. Despite the presence of the Zaynabiyat, in many cases the forces did not respect cultural norms, with male forces staying in the same room as the female relatives, and raiding the women’s and girls’ rooms as well, the sources said. Male forces sometimes entered homes where women lived without providing them the opportunity to cover themselves.

In most cases, the raids and interrogations lasted several hours.

In several cases, sources said that Houthi forces had a cameraman with them. “They were working according to a certain script … they were looking for details that had any ties with any international actors,” said one source. “They went through all of their photographs and took photographs of any pictures they had [with “Western”-looking individuals].” 

Enforced Disappearances, Denial of Access to Lawyers and Family Members

In all but one case documented, Houthi authorities have not provided any information about the whereabouts of the people they arrested when asked, amounting to enforced disappearance. In several cases, sources said, family members tried contacting Houthi authorities to find out where their family member had been taken, or to try to communicate with them, but were refused.

None of those detained have been allowed access to a lawyer, and lawyers that families hired were denied access to those detained when they tried to reach out to Houthi authorities.

“We just want a phone call,” a family member of one detainee said. “We know he’ll be held for a long time. We just want a phone call from him to say that he’s ok."

Many families have not been allowed to bring needed medicines for their detained relatives’ medical conditions.

History of Torture, Forced Confessions

Because Houthi authorities are holding the detainees incommunicado, Human Rights Watch has been unable to document detainee conditions, apart from the lack of access to needed medications for at least some of those detained. However, torture is a serious concern given that Human Rights Watch has documented torture of detainees in recent years by the Houthis.

In 2018, Human Rights Watch found that Houthi officials routinely treated detainees brutally, often in ways amounting to torture. Former detainees described Houthi officers beating them with iron rods, wooden sticks, and assault rifles. Guards whipped prisoners, shackled them to walls, caned their feet, and threatened to rape them or their family members, former detainees said. Several people described being hung from a wall by their arms shackled behind them as one of the most painful techniques.

The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen and rights groups have continued to document the Houthis’ use of torture since 2018. In their 2023 report, the panel reported that “Houthi-held prisoners are subjected to systematic psychological and physical torture, including the denial of medical intervention to cure the injuries caused by the torture inflicted, which for some prisoners resulted in permanent disabilities and death.”

Starting on June 10, the Houthis began publishing and broadcasting videos showing 10 earlier detainees “confessing” to espionage. Many of the individuals who spoke to Human Rights Watch expressed fears that the videos. along with statements by the Houthis that they had uncovered a “spy network,” would be used as justification for the recent spate of arrests and disappearances.

In the fall of 2021, Houthi rebels arrested former Yemeni employees of the US embassy in Yemen, all of whom, outside of one who died in detention, are still being held in arbitrary detention without access to their families or to lawyers. In May 2022, the US Mission to Yemen released a statement regarding the death of Abdulhameed al-Ajami, a former employee who had been held incommunicado since November 2021 and died in Houthi detention.

The 10 men who appeared in the videos appear to include some of these US embassy employees. In many cases, this was the first time their families had seen or heard from them since they had been arrested.

The so-called evidence shown in the videos accusing them of being spies included letters of recommendation from their current or former employers, including the US embassy in Yemen, citing the projects they had worked on, and recommending them for future employment and visas. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the veracity of the documents, but they do not appear to contain evidence of espionage.

Human Rights Watch and other groups, including the former UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, have documented the Houthis’ use of torture to obtain information or confessions. In their 2020 report,, the experts said that they had “verified that 14 men and 1 boy had been subjected to torture, including sexual violence in eight cases, to extract written confessions or punish them while levelling accusations of affiliations to different political and military groups.”

In a statement on June 14, Commissioner Volker Türk stressed that “the public broadcasting on 10 and 12 June of statements procured under circumstances of inherent duress from our colleague, detained incommunicado, and others detained since 2021 is totally unacceptable, and itself violates their human rights.”

Broader Humanitarian Crisis and Houthi Crackdown on Civil Society

Many sources said that the Houthis’ recent arrests are also a means to distract attention from their increasing failure to provide people living in their territories with basic necessities, as well as the government’s recent decision to move banking from Sanaa to Aden.

In November 2023, after several years of failed negotiations, the World Food Programme (WFP) decided to “pause” humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled areas. According to several people in the humanitarian sector in Yemen, the Houthis had been controlling the lists of beneficiaries and in some cases were using humanitarian aid to recruit fighters and children to Houthi forces. Many other aid organizations say that they have struggled to maintain their operations in Houthi-controlled territories because of the extensive restrictions and attempts by Houthi authorities to control their programs.

Others believe that, in addition to the pressure over banking, the arrests are part of a wider crackdown on civic space in their territories, and a desire to have complete control over all aspects of life, including humanitarian aid, education, health, and corporate profit.

“The closure and complete shutdown of civic space in their areas has been going on for a long time,” one source said.

Since the Houthis took over Sanaa in 2014, they have carried out significant violations of women’s rights and freedoms, have repressed freedom of speech and assembly, and have detained dozens of journalists, human rights defenders, academics, and political opponents.

The Houthis have also tried to achieve control of many sectors across their territories, from educational institutions to private companies to humanitarian organizations.

“[The Houthis previously] took over Nama’a Bank, Science and Technology Hospital, Azal University, Al-Nasser University, the Emirates University, Sabafon telecommunication company, and hundreds of other institutions that they seized and gave to their people to run,” one source said.

Describing the arrests of the staff of two pharmaceutical companies on June 9, a political analyst told Human Rights Watch that: “This isn't just the medical company sector. We saw this in many economic sectors inside of Sanaa too, either banking sector, factory sector, etc. The Houthis are trying to have their own say on the economic circles, especially in the private sectors, and want to own their own institutions or want people who are 100 percent loyal to them to be owning them.”

Another source described that the Houthis’ recent arrests would result in a greater “brain drain” than had already occurred over the last 10 years of conflict.

A Yemeni person living abroad said: “It's almost as if our life in Yemen is over after this. I thought I would move back and start a family there, and now it’s clear to me I can’t do that. We can’t live like this.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country