Tawfiq al-Mansouri's mother, daughter, and wife hold up a photo of him during a demonstration on October 1, 2020. Al-Mansouri is one of four imprisoned Yemeni journalists currently facing the death penalty. © 2020 Mohammed Al-Emmad

(Beirut) – Four journalists arbitrarily detained by Houthi authorities in Yemen since 2015 face the death penalty and receive inadequate medical care, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 11, 2020, the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in Sanaa sentenced the four Yemeni journalists to death after an unfair trial on politically motivated charges of treason and spying for foreign states because of their work as journalists. The Houthi authorities should immediately quash the death sentences and unconditionally release the journalists.

Houthi authorities arrested the four journalists – Abdul Khaleq Amran, Akram Al-Walidi, Hareth Humaid, and Tawfiq Al-Mansouri – along with five other journalists during a June 9, 2015, raid on a hotel room in Sanaa, where they were working because it was one of the few locations in the city with an internet connection and electricity, family members told Human Rights Watch by phone. Throughout their detention, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the journalists have had only irregular and restricted family visits, lack of access to legal assistance, and inadequate medical care. On October 15, the Houthis released five of the journalists as part of a prisoner exchange deal with the internationally recognized government of Yemen, but refused to include the four with death sentences.

“Houthi authorities are using compromised courts to punish journalists for doing their job, adding to the armed group’s bleak record of abuses,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These journalists should never have been arrested in the first place, much less face the death penalty.”

The Houthi armed group has in recent years consolidated its hold on Sanaa, the country’s capital, including on the judiciary. The United Nations Group of Eminent Experts for Yemen has reported that the Houthi group has used the Specialized Criminal Courts in Sanaa “as an instrument to suppress dissent, intimidate political opponents and/or develop political capital to be used in negotiations.”

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and finality.

Prior to the 2015 arrests, the journalists worked for various local media outlets reporting on abuses by the Houthi armed group, which has controlled Sanaa and much of Yemen’s northwest since September 2014. Amran was the editor-in-chief of the al-Islah news website, affiliated with the Islah political party, a key adversary of the Houthis. Al-Walidi worked for Alrabie-ye.net news website and the state-funded news agency SABA. Humaid was the news editor at Yemen Revolution Press reporting on Houthi human rights abuses. Al-Mansouri worked for Yemen Revolution Press as a graphic designer.

Al-Mansouri’s brother said that the Houthi authorities restricted access to family members and lawyers during the trial and afterward. “The Houthi authorities never allowed us to visit Tawfiq,” he said. “Every three or four months, the Houthi authorities allowed Tawfiq to call us for five minutes and [he] would ask us to send him money but half of it would be taken by the prison guards.… Last time he called was a month ago, for only five minutes. The Houthi authorities did not allow lawyers to speak to Tawfiq and the other detainees facing executions. The lawyer was able to speak to them only once inside the courtroom in the presence of the judge and other Houthi security officers.”

Family members also described lack of access to adequate medical care. Al-Walidi’s sister said of her most recent visit: “The last I saw him, his face looked very pale. A month ago, he called us briefly and his voice was tired. Akram has chronic digestive problems and suffers from high blood pressure. He [does] not receive medical care inside the prison, but rather that we, his family, send him medicine when the Houthi authorities allow us.”

Humaid’s sister also expressed her family’s concerns over his medical condition: “The Houthi authorities do not give us any information about the case of my brother…. Hareth has been suffering loss of vision, dryness in his eyes, and constant migraines. When he calls us, he asks for money or for us to send him medicine. In 2019, the Houthi authorities allowed Hareth to go once to an eye treatment clinic and we covered all the financial expenses.”

None of the families knew where the four were held.

Family members also consistently expressed serious concerns that the Houthi authorities would execute the four soon, especially after they were not included in the prisoner exchange. Humaid’s sister said, “In 2018, my father died without saying goodbye to Hareth. For the sake of my ill mother, we hope Hareth will be released soon, but we are worried that the death sentence will be carried out soon.”

Human Rights Watch also spoke with three of the journalists included in the prisoner exchange: Hisham Ahmed Tarmoom, 30, Haitham Abdulrahman Al-Shihab, 29, and Essam Amin Balgheeth, 30.

They said that the Specialized Criminal Court tried them alongside the four currently on death row on similar charges. But the court eventually ordered their release along with two other prisoners – Hisham Abdulmalik Al-Yousefi and Hassan Abdullah Annab – later included in the prisoner exchange. None knew why the court had ordered their release while sentencing the four to death.

Despite the release order, the Houthi authorities continued to detain the five without explanation until the September deal with the Yemeni government, when they were released in exchange for government-held prisoners. Unlawfully holding people to use for a prisoner exchange is a form of hostage-taking, which is a war crime.

The three said that Annab and al-Yousefi were unable to speak to Human Rights Watch because they suffered from physical and psychological problems due to torture and ill-treatment in detention.

“In the beginning of our detention, Houthi forces threatened us, all the journalists, several times that they would use us as human shields and leave us in weaponry storage, so the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes would hit the place and kill us,” Tarmoon said. “Psychologically, that was devastating. Inside the prison, the Houthi officers used to emotionally abuse us, calling us names and accusing us repeatedly of being criminals. But our only fault was that we were working as journalists, reporting on what was happening on the ground.”

Al-Shihab said that he believes he developed diabetes in prison due to the poor conditions. Balgheeth said that he could only obtain medical treatment after his condition worsened and after he repeatedly pleaded with the guards. “I suffer from numerous diseases, [including] colon disease, a peptic ulcer, pain in my bones, and asthma,” he said. “I speak now while having a pain in my chest from the asthma, which I developed after the harsh detention conditions…. The cell we were kept in most of the time was 3x2 meters. We were 10 people inside that cell. The toilet was inside the room [and] the toilet and the room were constantly filthy. The place was dusty all the time.”

“One time I had an unbearable pain in a sensitive area of my body. After much pleading, the guards allowed me to see a doctor at my own expense. However, the guards did not allow me to follow through with the medical instructions the doctor suggested, such as having clean clothes and staying in well-ventilated place,” Balgheeth said.  

The three journalists said they struggled to resume their lives in Marib governorate after five years of detention and abuse. “We received inadequate support [from the recognized Yemeni government] after our release,” Balgheeth said. “We were shocked to find out the devastating humanitarian situation around us…. I was engaged before I was detained, but less than a year ago my fiancée could not wait more for me and she got married to someone else. That was devastating.”

“The Houthi authorities should immediately impose a moratorium on the death penalty and improve detention conditions in the facilities under their control,” Nasser said. “For conditions to really improve they need to provide accountability and compensation for abuses by their forces.”