Yemen: Detainees tortured and arbitrarily detained for years then forced into exile upon release

The Huthi de facto authorities in Yemen must not use arbitrarily detained prisoners as pawns in ongoing political negotiations, a new report by Amnesty International said today.

The report, Released and Exiled: Torture, unfair trials and forcible exile of Yemenis under Huthi rule, is an in-depth investigation into the experiences of a minority of non-fighters, including journalists, political opponents and Baha’i religious minority members, who were released as part of political deals in 2020 after being unlawfully detained and tortured for up to seven years. Upon their release, the Baha’is were forced into exile, with the United Nations (UN) facilitating their departure and eight other detainees were banished to other parts of the country.

“This report highlights how prisoners have been used as political pawns with forcible exile and displacement resulting from negotiated prisoner deals by Huthi de-facto authorities. After suffering years of harrowing abuse and unlawful detention, even release did not bring relief to the detainees featured in this report as none of them were able to return home and reunite with their families after years forcibly separated,” said Heba Morayef, Middle East and North Africa Regional Director at Amnesty International.

“No one should be forced to choose between staying in unlawful detention or abandoning their home or country.  Under no circumstances should negotiated prisoner release deals explicitly or implicitly allow for released detainees to be forcibly exiled or displaced from their homes.”

In October 2020, Huthi officials and the international recognized government released 1056 prisoners as part of a politically negotiated deal co-sponsored by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). While the vast majority were fighters, around two dozen were not. Prior to that, in July 2020, Huthi officials released six members of the Baha’i religious minority. Amnesty International spoke to 12 of that small group who should never have been detained in the first place; seven journalists, a government employee, and four Baha’is.

Ten were detained for periods ranging between two and three years before they were informed of the charges brought against them. In nine cases, a court had ordered the detainees’ release in March and April 2020. However, the Huthi authorities continued to arbitrarily detain them for months afterwards, only releasing them later as part of political deals. 

This report highlights how prisoners have been used as political pawns with forcible exile and displacement resulting from negotiated prisoner deals by Huthi de-facto authorities. After suffering years of harrowing abuse and unlawful detention, even release did not bring relief to the detainees featured in this report as none of them were able to return home and reunite with their families after years forcibly separated.
Heba Morayef, Middle East and North Africa Regional Director at Amnesty International

Forcible exile and displacement

On 30 July 2020, six Baha’i detainees were released after up to seven years arbitrary detention. Instead of being allowed to return home, the Huthi authorities forced them to leave Yemen, transferring them directly to Sana’a airport. They boarded a UN flight to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, suggesting the UN was aware of their forcible exile. The expelled Baha’is remain banished from Yemen to this day.

A member of the Baha’i community described how he was taken straight to the airport upon his release:

“I begged them [the authorities] to allow me to see my father but they didn’t. He is 80 years old and I won’t be able to see him again. That was the hardest thing in my life, leaving my father behind,” he said.

At least eight other detainees released in October 2020 told Amnesty International that the Huthi authorities had transferred them directly from their place of detention to the airport and ordered them to board flights to Aden and Sey’oun airports, areas under the control of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. One of the journalists who had remained arbitrarily detained for more than five months after a court ordered his release told Amnesty International:

“We wanted to stay in Sana’a but the Huthis refused to release us unconditionally even though the court ruled in favour of our release. We had no other option but to take the deal and leave the north [area under the control of the Huthis] ...My home and family are in Sana’a. My life is in Sana’a.”

Faced with the risk of indefinite detention and torture, Amnesty International does not consider their “agreement” while in arbitrary detention to leave their place of origin as voluntary.

Exile on account of religious beliefs or political opposition constitutes an egregious violation of international human rights law. The exile of Baha’i detainees violates the prohibition on forced displacement in international humanitarian law and can amount to a war crime.

“The Huthi authorities must put an end to forcible exile – which is an outrageous breach of international law and a damning addition to the long list of other violations that Huthi authorities are responsible for. They must allow the return of exiled individuals to their homes,” said Heba Morayef. 

I begged them [the authorities] to allow me to see my father but they didn’t. He is 80 years old and I won’t be able to see him again. That was the hardest thing in my life, leaving my father behind.
Member of the Baha'i community

Torture and inhumane detention conditions

All 12 former detainees interviewed by Amnesty International were tortured or subjected to other forms of ill-treatment during their interrogation and detention. They described how Huthi forces beat them with steel rods, electric cables, weapons and other objects, placed them in stress positions, hosed them with water, repeatedly threatened to kill them or detained them in solitary confinement for periods ranging between 20 days and several months. Many of the detainees continue to suffer from physical injuries and chronic health problems as a result of this abuse and the lack of health care they received during their time in detention.

One journalist described how he fainted twice from fear and stress after being threatened by his interrogators:

“The interrogator and others in the room threatened to shoot me. Threatened to kill my parents. They wanted me to name other journalists and students who covered anti-Huthi news… They threatened to … remove my nails one by one.

"They threatened to give me electric shocks between my legs.”

Another detained journalist described being subjected to a terrifying mock execution while held in a counterterrorism branch in Hodeida. He was summoned by guards at night who handcuffed and blindfolded him and showed him a hole in the ground outside saying: “this is your grave”.

“I heard the sound of a gunshot in the background. I imagined being hit by a bullet. They kicked me and pushed me in to the hole. I fell on my face. My nose started bleeding and I could taste the blood. I started crying and thinking of my children because I was sure they were going to bury me alive. I was begging them to kill me first. The same man was saying ‘we will bury you here and your family will never know where you are’,” he said.

Detainees also said they were tortured repeatedly simply for asking for food or water. 

This report paints a horrifying picture of the catalogue of abuse endured by these former detainees including enforced disappearance, detention in inhumane conditions, torture, denial of medical care, and facing grossly unfair trials on trumped-up charges,” said Heba Morayef.

“As well as putting an immediate end to these abuses, Huthi authorities must order the immediate and unconditional release of anyone detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights - without exile or banishment.”