On Tuesday, an international watchdog accused Yemen’s Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, of committing abuses including hostage taking, torture and enforced disappearances of people they hold in detention.
The New York-based watchdog said in a statement it documented 16 cases of illegal imprisonment by the rebels, largely to extort money from relatives or to exchange them for prisoners held by opposing forces”.
“Houthi officials have treated detainees brutally, often rising to the level of torture,” HRW said, adding that prisoners were shackled to walls, caned, and threatened with rape, noting that hostage-taking “is a serious violation of the laws of war and a war crime”.
Former detainees described being beaten with iron rods, wooden sticks or assault rifles and the terrible conditions in Houthi custody: poor hygiene, limited access to toilets, which caused some to defecate on themselves; and lack of food and healthcare. Former detainees described Houthi officers beating them and guards whipping prisoners and threatening to rape them or their family members, the report said.
“The Houthis have added profiteering to their long list of abuses and offenses against the people under their control in Yemen. Some Houthi officials are exploiting their power to turn a profit through detention, torture, and murder,” HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.
Since late 2014, when Houthi forces occupied the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of the Houthis and forces loyal to the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh carrying out arbitrary and abusive detention, as well as forced disappearances and torture. Yemeni rights groups have documented hundreds more cases. Human Rights Watch recently interviewed 14 former detainees and relatives of two other men detained or disappeared.
The wife of a man arrested by unidentified men in late 2015 said: “At the beginning, I didn’t know that he was arrested. They kidnapped him, but my family and I were looking for him everywhere. We asked at hospitals, police stations.” They later learned he was held at the Houthi-controlled Political Security Office, a notorious intelligence agency, in Sanaa. “I was following up with Houthi mediators for five months, and they were taking money,” she said. “Every time they give me promises with no result. I spoke to many Houthis leaders …. They say they will do this and that, but they do nothing.”
She has paid Houthi officials about 1.5 million Yemeni riyals over the last three years. Her husband remains detained. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen found that Political Security Office members were “profiting from detentions.”
The sister of a man who disappeared in Hajjah governorate while looking for a job in 2016 said it was more than six months before a friend told her he had been detained. She contacted a Houthi official, who asked for “guarantees.” The family paid 100,000 riyals and her brother was released a month later. She said her brother had changed after his detention: “He is not as he used to be. Signs of psychological disturbance appeared on him, he talks to himself, sometimes he keeps saying ‘Why do they beat me?’, talking to himself. I don’t know what he saw, or what they did to him, during his disappearance.”
The Association of Mothers of Abductees, a group run by Yemeni women who advocate for their arrested or disappeared civilian relatives, sent HRW accounts from 10 cases in which Houthi officials demanded money as a condition for release.
According to the association, which holds regular public protests, nine families paid. Houthi officials released only three of the men, including one in a prisoner exchange for Houthi fighters.
UN investigators reported last month that all sides in the conflict may have committed war crimes, pointing to widespread arbitrary detention, rape, torture, and the recruitment of children.
A report obtained by Al Jazeera last month alleged that the UAE had set up a network of clandestine prisons across southern Yemen. The report described scenes of sexual abuse by Emirati army personnel and their Yemeni allies.
Electric cables were used alongside wooden bats and steel poles during the interrogation sessions.
In some instances, the detainees are described as having been deprived of sleep and confined to narrow spaces with poor hygienic conditions and limited air ventilation.
HRW called on the UN Human Rights Council to renew the mandate for a group of experts on Yemen to investigate and identify all parties responsible for abuses.
“The United Arab Emirates, UAE proxies, and Yemeni government forces have also arbitrarily detained, tortured and forcibly disappeared scores of people in the Yemeni conflict,” it said.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Sanaa-based Interior Ministry on September 12 regarding preliminary findings and requesting further information on what steps, if any, the ministry had taken to hold people implicated in abuse accountable. The ministry has not responded.
This article has been adapted from its original source.