The Houthi armed group in Yemen has frequently taken hostages and committed other serious abuses against people in their custody, Human Rights Watch said. Houthi officials should stop taking hostages, free everyone arbitrarily detained, end torture and enforced disappearances, and punish those responsible for abuses.
Human Rights Watch documented 16 cases in which Houthi authorities held people unlawfully, in large part to extort money from relatives or to exchange them for people held by opposing forces. Hostage-taking is a serious violation of the laws of war and a war crime. The United Nations Human Rights Council should renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which has a mandate to investigate and identify those responsible for abuses.
“The Houthis have added profiteering to their long list of abuses and offenses against the people under their control in Yemen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than treat detainees humanely, some Houthi officials are exploiting their power to turn a profit through detention, torture, and murder.”
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.
Houthi officials have treated detainees brutally, often amounting to torture, Human Rights Watch said. Former detainees described Houthi officers beating them with iron rods, wooden sticks, and assault rifles. Guards whipped prisoners, shackled them to walls, caned their feet, and threatened to rape them or their family members, former detainees said. Several people described being hung from a wall by their arms shackled behind them as one of the most painful techniques. In many cases, Houthi officials tortured them to obtain information or confessions.
Former detainees said guards refused detainees medical assistance or treatment after abuse. Those released and their family members reported physical and psychological health complications from mistreatment.
Houthi officials regularly extort those detained and their relatives, said former detainees, family members, and Yemeni rights activists. In some cases, the Houthis ultimately released the detainee – often they have not.
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.”
Former detainees described terrible conditions in Houthi custody: poor hygiene; limited access to toilets, causing some to defecate on themselves; and lack of food and health care. Former detainees and family members said many formal and all informal detention facilities refused access to family members. Detainees had no defined process for challenging their detention or reporting mistreatment. In many cases documented, Houthi authorities moved detainees between facilities – both formal and informal – without notifying family members.
The Association of Mothers of Abductees, Yemeni women who advocate for their detained or disappeared civilian relatives, sent Human Rights Watch accounts from 10 cases in which Houthi officials had demanded money as a condition for release. Nine families paid. Houthi officials released only three of the men, including one in a prisoner exchange for Houthi fighters.
When committed in the context of an armed conflict, cruel treatment, torture, and humiliating or degrading treatment are war crimes. Taking hostages – seizing someone or detaining them and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain them to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing something as a condition of release or for the person’s safety – is a war crime under the statute of the International Criminal Court.
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.
In 2018, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen concluded the Houthis had “committed acts that may amount to war crimes, including cruel treatment and torture [and] outrages upon personal dignity.” The experts documented the Houthis detaining students, human rights defenders, journalists, perceived political opponents and members of the Baha’i community, and mistreating and torturing detainees, including at the National Security Bureau and Political Security Office. The experts also found Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE forces credibly implicated in detainee-related abuse that might amount to war crimes.
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.
Houthi authorities should promptly release those held arbitrarily, end forced disappearances, and credibly investigate and punish those responsible for torture and hostage taking. Should they fail to do so, the UN Security Council should impose targeted sanctions on people who bear the greatest responsibility for detention-related abuses, including as a matter of command responsibility.
Yemen should urgently join the International Criminal Court, which would allow for possible prosecution of serious crimes by all parties to the conflict.
“Yemenis taken into custody are suffering terribly, whether at the hands of the Houthis, the UAE forces, or government forces,” Whitson said. “UN officials and influential governments should press the warring parties to treat detainees humanely and release anyone being held arbitrarily.”