The arbitrary detention of 10 journalists for nearly four years by the Huthi de facto authorities is a grim indicator of the dire state of media freedom in Yemen, said Amnesty International, demanding their immediate release ahead of World Press Freedom Day.
The 10 journalists have been held since the summer of 2015 and are being prosecuted on trumped-up spying charges for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. Over the course of their detention the men have been forcibly disappeared, held in intermittent incommunicado detention, been deprived of access to medical care and suffered torture and other ill-treatment. In one recent incident, on 19 April a prison warden entered their cell at night, stripped off their clothing and brutally beat them, according to trusted sources. They have been held in solitary confinement since that day.
“The unlawful and prolonged detention, torture and other ill-treatment of these 10 journalists is a shocking reminder of the repressive media climate facing journalists in Yemen and illustrates the risks they face at the hands of all parties to the conflict,” said Rasha Mohamed, Amnesty International’s Yemen Researcher.
“These men are being punished for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. The de facto Huthi authorities should release them immediately and drop all the charges against them. Journalists must be allowed to carry out their work free from harassment, intimidation or threat of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention or prosecution.”
The unlawful and prolonged detention, torture and other ill-treatment of these 10 journalists is a shocking reminder of the repressive media climate facing journalists in Yemen and illustrates the risks they face at the hands of all parties to the conflictRasha Mohamed, Amnesty International's Yemen Researcher
More than three years into their detention, in December 2018, the journalists were formally charged after being questioned in the presence of their lawyers and their cases were referred from the Political Security Office to the Specialized Criminal Court – a court traditionally reserved for terrorism-related cases. They were charged with a series of offences including spying – which is punishable by death in the Yemeni Criminal Code – and helping the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. Their trials have not started yet and it is not clear when they might take place.
Some of the journalists worked for online news outlets affiliated with al-Islah, a political party that opposes the Huthis’ de facto administration.
“It is completely outrageous that these men could face the death penalty simply for doing their jobs. The charges against them are false and should be dropped immediately. They are blatantly being targeted because of their journalistic work and their political opinions,” said Rasha Mohamed.
The men are believed to suffer from a range of health problems, including abdominal pain, for which they have been refused treatment. Officials in the Political Security Office have also prevented visiting families from bringing detainees medication.
Their prosecution falls into a wider pattern of Huthi de facto authorities using the justice system to settle political scores.
Devastating impact on families
Amnesty International spoke to family members of the journalists who described the agony of being separated from their loved ones and the psychological impact on their children who are growing up without a father.
One of the journalists’ wives said she was reluctant to take her young child to see his father regularly because she was worried about him being traumatized: “When he sees his father, he just asks him ‘when are you coming home with us baba [daddy]?’” and then you can see how his father is in pain.”
She also described how her son picked up his father’s clothes that she had brought home to wash, started to smell them and started crying out for him.
“I haven’t slept or eaten for three days after seeing [her husband] in such a difficult state. I try to be strong in front of him even though I want to cry. He cries, and I tell him stay strong, don’t let them break you, be patient.”
Family members also told Amnesty International that their prison visits were irregular, did not last more than five minutes and were heavily supervised by armed men, in an effort to intimidate the detainees from speaking out, they said.
One of the men’s wives said despite this she could see that “his face was worn out with exhaustion.”
Nine of the journalists were arrested in a single raid on the Qasr al-Ahlam hotel in Sana’a on 9 June 2015. Abdelkhaleq Amran, Hisham Tarmoom, Tawfiq al-Mansouri, Hareth Hamid, Hasan Annab, Akram al-Walidi, Haytham al-Shihab, Hisham al-Yousefi and Essam Balgheeth were working at the hotel as it was one of the few places in the city that had an internet connection and electricity.
The 10th journalist, Salah al-Qaedi, was detained at his home in Sana’a by members of Huthi forces on 28 August 2015 according to an eyewitness. Five minutes later, they returned to the house and demanded that the family hand over Salah al-Qaedi’s laptop and equipment threatening to arrest the rest of the family. When the family said that they did not have his equipment, Huthi forces arrested all seven male relatives and held them for 48 hours.
All parties to the conflict, including Huthi forces, the Yemeni government, the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition and UAE-backed Yemeni forces have carried out arbitrary detentions.
In areas they controlled, Huthi forces arbitrarily arrested and detained critics and opponents as well as journalists, human rights defenders and members of the Baha’i community, subjecting scores to unfair trials, incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance. The majority of those targeted have been members or supporters of the political party al-Islah.
The internationally recognized Yemeni government has also harassed, threatened and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders and other activists. Meanwhile, UAE-backed Yemeni forces in southern Yemen conducted a campaign of arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances. In May 2018, Amnesty International detailed the cases of 51 men held in a network of secret prisons by UAE and Yemeni forces operating outside the command of Yemen’s government, including individuals detained between March 2016 and May 2018.