Yemen: Houthis Must Immediately Release Civil Society and UN Staff Members

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

The Houthis, the de facto governing authority in the Yemeni capital Sana’a and other cities, must immediately and unconditionally release detained staff members from Yemeni and international civil society organizations and different United Nations (UN) agencies arrested under bogus accusations of ‘spying’, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) said today.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, confirmed that 13 UN personnel were detained by the Houthis on 6 June 2024, including six from his office. This brings the total number of UN personnel detained by the Houthis to 17 including a staff member of OHCHR detained since November 2021, all held incommunicado without any due process.

The current Houthi crackdown has also targeted Yemenis who are working or who used to work at other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in fields such as development and humanitarian aid. CIHRS learnt from one detainee’s family that Houthi forces raided their home, confiscated laptops and personal items, and spread terror among the family household before detaining the father, who used to work as a consultant for a number of NGOs. The Houthi forces then took him to an unknown location and his family has not yet been able to learn his  whereabouts. Accounts published by other rights organizations show a similar pattern of arrest for the other civil society members targeted in the crackdown.

A list, which CIHRS wasn’t able to verify, shared by individuals and rights groups on X, formerly Twitter, includes a breakdown of 60 individuals detained and the organizations they work for, or worked for in the past. Obtaining information from Sana’a has been very difficult as families and colleagues of detained individuals fear for their safety in case they give their testimonies. It is reported that a female worker was arrested alongside her husband and two children, 3 years old and 9 months old. The whereabouts of all those detained remain unknown.

“Civil society in Yemen is playing a crucial role by providing essential services and documenting abuses against the population, while the warring parties have destroyed Yemen throughout a decade-long senseless war. It is appalling to see that the Houthis are now accusing NGOs of spying instead of recognizing their role in protecting and helping citizens,” said Amna Guellali, Research Director at CIHRS.

A few days after this wave of arrests, the Houthis announced in a press conference held on 10 June 2024 that they captured an ‘American-Israeli spy cell’, claiming that former workers at the US embassy were involved in spying activities and “..continued to implement their sabotage agendas under the cover of international and UN organizations.” Following the announcement, the Houthi-controlled television station Al Masirah aired several videos of alleged confessions  by some of those arrested in previous arrest campaigns. These ‘confessions’ represent a clear violation of fair trial rights, most notably the right of the individuals not to be forced to testify against themselves. Furthermore, there are serious concerns that the confessions may have been forced and extracted through duress, torture and mistreatment, which further raises the alarm at the fate of those recently arrested.

Since the war on Gaza began on 7 October 2023, the Houthis have asserted that they are fighting Israel and the United States of America. The Houthi claim to be supporting the oppressed Palestinian people is being used as a coverup to mask their massive escalation of rights violations against the war-torn Yemeni people.

In September 2023, the Houthis detained Save the Children’s Safety and Security Director, Hisham Al Hakimi, and held him incommunicado, announcing his death more than a month later in October 2023. To date, no investigations have been conducted into the reasons for his death. Impunity is rampant in Yemen, where parties holding power in different parts of the country have reportedly committed egregious rights violations. The Houthis have reportedly forcibly disappeared dozens of individuals, in disregard of any legal proceedings, and held them in inhumane conditions including without access to healthcare.

Charges of espionage have been heavily used by the Houthis to crack down on opponents. Most recently, the Specialized Criminal Court in Sana’a sentenced 44 individuals to death for this same alleged crime in a trial that lacked the minimum standards of due process.

As the UN Human Rights Council’s June session is due to start on 18  June 2024, CIHRS urges states to use this opportunity to renew calls for accountability into violations committed in Yemen. An independent international investigative mechanism is long overdue and states must come together to make sure civilians are protected under international law.  Those with influence over the Houthis must exercise pressure to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, or without any legal basis.

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