In Yemen, Iran-aligned rebels tighten their grip through fear and intimidation
By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 31, 2018
SANAA, Yemen — When Mohammed Bamuftah arrived at the post office to pick up his salary one day in 2015, he said a rebel fighter stopped him to inspect his ID card. The 55-year-old lawyer was from Aden, where Yemen's internationally recognized government was based. That was enough to get him arrested.
By the time Bamuftah emerged from prison three years later, he had suffered shocks from an electric prod, he said. He had been hanged from a ceiling with his hands cuffed for three-hour stretches and beaten with rubber-coated electric cables.
"I was in so much pain that I would pass out," recalled Bamuftah, a father of three who was released last summer in a prisoner exchange.
In Yemen's war, a Saudi-led coalition backed by the United States has been vilified for killing thousands of civilians with airstrikes, waging an economic war that has driven millions to the precipice of starvation, and allegedly torturing foes and critics in secret prisons. The criticism has gained more traction since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in October focused attention on Riyadh's behavior and the coalition's conduct in Yemen.
But abuses are also being perpetrated by the rebels, known as Houthis. Torture, detentions and forced disappearances are widespread, according to legal documents and interviews with victims and human rights activists. The abuses are fueling an expanding atmosphere of fear and intimidation in this capital and across rebel-controlled areas.
The Washington Post reached out to 13 former prisoners and victims of the Houthis. Only four agreed to speak on the record because they and their families had fled the north, where the Houthis are strongest. Those still in Sanaa suspect they are being followed by Houthi intelligence agents. Some victims were afraid to speak even by phone, fearing they were tapped by the rebels.
The Houthis have targeted activists, journalists, lawyers, religious minorities, business executives - anyone deemed to be against their rule and ideology. Gunmen have raided homes at night, arresting and beating people over minor disputes or for voicing criticism of their movement. Few face trials or have access to lawyers. Courts are either nonexistent or used purely for sentencing, according to human rights activists and victims.
"The Houthis have really gone after a wide spectrum of people who they perceive to be a threat or political opponents to them," said Kristine Beckerle, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Now, there's a continuing and increasing crackdown on civil society that is quite troubling."
Civil rights lawyers and activists say the abuses have gotten worse since December 2017, when the Houthis killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, once their main ally. Today, the guerrilla movement has consolidated its grip over much of northern Yemen, exerting control over every aspect of society.
"There is fear across the city," said Abdul Majid Sabra, a lawyer who represents more than four dozen clients, including 10 journalists, held in rebel prisons. "Nobody would dare show what they really feel about the Houthis in public. . . . This is the new reality."
When asked about the abuse allegations, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthi's Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said that he would call for an investigation. Any rebel found guilty of committing torture, he vowed, would face trial. But he also expressed skepticism, declaring the reports a diversionary tactic by enemies.
"The coalition is trying to give false information," al-Houthi said, "so they can cover up their own crimes."
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The Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, emerged in the 1990s from Saada, a rugged northern province bordering Saudi Arabia, to fight against Yemen's longtime autocratic leader, Saleh, whom they blamed for their economic and political marginalization.
Houthis were instrumental in the 2011 Arab Spring revolts that led to Saleh's resignation the next year. They took advantage of the chaos that followed to seize territory. By 2014, Houthis controlled a large swatch of Yemen, including parts of Sanaa.
In a Machiavellian twist, the Houthis joined forces with Saleh that year. By early 2015, they had ousted Saleh's successor, who had proved unable to govern the country. With Houthi support, Saleh regained political influence. Then the Saudi-led Sunni Muslim coalition intervened, in part because of its fears that Shiite Iran, a Houthi ally, would gain power in the region.
In December 2017, after months of tensions, Saleh broke with the Houthis - and announced he would align with the coalition. Two days later, he was assassinated by Houthi fighters.
Critics say that Houthi leaders - who had once criticized Saleh's use of his public office to amass a personal fortune - have now become like the leader they eliminated.
Activist Hisham Al Omeisy describes Houthi commanders driving expensive cars and living in mansions in Sanaa. Rebel authorities taxed businesses and took large profits while claiming they could not pay salaries to civil servants or assist millions of starving Yemenis.
"People are frustrated," said Omeisy, who now lives in Egypt. "They say, 'I am hungry, dying, there's no salary.' Meanwhile, the Houthis are driving $200,000 Porsches and Range Rovers."
In August 2017, Omeisy sent out tweets accusing some rebels of corruption. Within hours, Houthi gunmen arrested him.
They accused Omeisy of being an American spy and of "brainwashing Yemenis with American ideas." For three weeks, he said, he was held in solitary confinement, blindfolded in a tiny cell.
Then, the torture began. Omeisy said he was taken several times to a room dubbed by prisoners "al Warsha" - "the workshop" in Arabic - where knives and other sharp items were used "to cut you to pieces," where they "hang you from the ceiling and beat you up."
"They used metal chains with me, hitting my back, thighs and head," Omeisy said.
He was allowed to go to the bathroom once or twice a day, for two minutes. Every two to three weeks, he was ordered to confess on the rebels' television station to being a spy. Omeisy says he always refused.
In interviews, three other former prisoners who had been held by the Houthis described additional methods of torture, including being tied by the legs and arms to a metal rod and turned over a fire, as if being roasted like a chicken. Sometimes, a live snake would be thrown into a cell.
The rebels also used psychological torture. Abdo Abdullah al-Zubaidy, a former judge who was accused of working with the coalition, said Houthi gunmen went to his home and threatened his wife and children.
After being imprisoned, he recalled guards would sometimes blindfold and handcuff him, then place a gun to his head and tell him, "We could kill you right now."
"They used many ways to intimidate us, making me think they could kill my own family, or even shoot them dead in front of me," recalled Zubaidy, 56, who spent more than a year in a cell before being released in a prisoner exchange last year. He said his back is still in bad shape because of months of electric shocks and beatings.
Lawyers, too, are targets. Sabra was jailed for a day after an argument with a Houthi official. A colleague fared worse: He was beaten and jailed for passing a note to his client containing a name and a number.
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In the year since they killed Saleh, the Houthis have tightened their control over Sanaa.
Rebel spies are everywhere, in hospitals, hotels and neighborhoods, say aid workers, activists and residents. The Houthi information ministry recently hired English-speaking "minders" to monitor the rare Western journalists twho arrive.
Houthi leaders have ordered aid agencies and other nongovernmental organizations to hire Houthi representatives or loyalists as part of their local staff, said aid workers and activists. The rebels have also prevented U.N. agencies from freely operating, several U.N. officials said.
Against this backdrop, the Houthis have expanded their list of targets. They have even arrested people for erasing rebel slogans on walls or for writing anti-Houthi graffiti, activists said.
"They really want to silence any form of dissent inside Sanaa," said Omeisy, who fled to Cairo after being released from prison last year with the help of influential tribal leaders.
But few expected what happened on Oct. 6 when a group of young women took to the streets to protest rising prices that are sending millions to the edge of famine. They also called for the resumption of government salaries. Rebel authorities dispatched loyalists to attack the women with daggers, batons and electric prods, according to activists and cellphone videos. The Houthis also sent women to lecture the protesters about committing themselves to Allah and not attending such gatherings.
To the Houthis, the protests smacked of a planned attempt by their enemies to undermine them, said Rasha Jarhum, a Yemeni activist who has helped some of the protesting women flee the capital.
"It's paranoia," Jarhum said. "They know how to control only through security, like every dictatorship in history."
The Washington Post's Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.