Yemeni journalists who are survivors of Houthi prisons are appealing to the international community to pressure the rebel group to free four of their colleagues who are facing death sentences.
Abdel-Khaleq Amran, Akram al-Walidi, Hareth Hamid and Tawfiq al-Mansouri have been sentenced by a Houthi court after being convicted of spying charges.
They were among a group of 10 journalists detained by the Iran-backed rebels and accused of cooperating with the Saudi-led coalition that has been at war with the Houthis since 2015.
The group were eventually charged with spying, including “collaborating with the enemy” and “spreading false news and rumours” to weaken the Iran-backed rebels.
All 10 were convicted, but six were freed under strict surveillance conditions and banned from practising journalism, while the other four were sentenced to death.
The six survivors said they were subjected to treatment such as torture, starvation and solitary confinement for years before their case was bought before a Houthi-appointed judge in April 2020.
Family members and defence lawyers were not allowed to attend the trial, and an appeal was quashed. Amnesty International has previously said that the 10 men were arrested on “trumped up” charges for doing their jobs.
The six freed journalists and their families managed to leave Yemen and are now living in Cairo, a major diaspora hub. One year after the sentencing, they say the Yemeni government is not doing enough to negotiate their colleagues’ release.
“We would need to write books to [fully]describe what we went through and suffered in these detention facilities. Only God knows the hardships and suffering of our families in our absence … And there are still four journalists, who were sentenced to death inside these dark prisons, waiting for fate to intervene to save their lives and bring them back to their children,” said a statement from the group shared with the Guardian.
“My son is just a civilian, he’s not a soldier, he didn’t fight anyone, he wasn’t involved in politics. He didn’t deserve something like this for seven years,” said the mother of one of the detainees, who asked not to be named.
“We went everywhere, we talked to everyone but no one really helped us. I’m crying everyday, and I can’t sleep.”
Abdullah al-Mansouri, the brother of Tawfiq al-Mansouri, said his sibling had become seriously ill with kidney problems and diabetes, and his captors have denied him medical treatment. The family have only been able to visit him twice in the last three years.
“My brother was a healthy young man when he was first detained,” Mansouri said. “We still don’t know why some of the journalists were released and others condemned to death sentence. They were targeted to make an example for others.”
The Houthis are accused by rights groups of routinely imprisoning and torturing dissenters and those suspected of spying for the coalition. Hostages are sometimes purposely held in locations likely to be the target of coalition airstrikes: two imprisoned journalists, Abdullah Qabel and Yousif al-Aizari, died when a military site in Dhamar was bombed in 2015.
“These four colleagues are being used by the Houthis as pawns, to blackmail both the international community and the Yemeni government,” said Buthaina Faroq, a Yemeni activist who was also forced to flee the country and is living in Malaysia.
“Every single day is important for them stuck in prison. The Houthis are unpredictable, they could decide to keep them or execute them at any moment.”
According to Reporters Without Borders, about 20 Yemeni journalists are being held prisoner by the Houthis or al-Qaida.
Yemen ranked 167th out of 180 countries in the organisation’s press freedom index for 2020. (Source: The Guardian)