10 Yemeni journalists face trial
Trial proceedings are expected to begin this month for at least 10 journalists who have been illegally detained for nearly four years according to a statement from the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS). The trial will take place in front of what the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has labelled an ‘unjust and bogus court’ controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthis.
Abdelkhaleq Amran, Hisham Tarmoom, Tawfiq al-Mansouri, Hareth Hamid, Hasan Annab, Akram al-Walidi, Haytham al-Shihab, Hisham al-Yousefi and Essam Balgheeth have been detained since 9 June 2015. The nine journalists were working in the Qasr Al-Ahlam Hotel in Sana’a – the capital of Yemen – when they were arrested by armed men dressed in a mixture of civilian, military and general secretary clothing. Some of these men also had slogans on their weapons associated with the Houthis and its political wing, Ansarullah.
Family members of the detained journalists told Amnesty International they overheard guards justifying their detention on the grounds the journalists were “tarnishing the image of the Houthi popular committees” and “ working for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, America and Israel.” All nine of these journalists worked for media outlets that the Houthis view as sympathetic to the al-Islah party – which is affiliated with Yemen’s Muslim brotherhood – involved in fighting against the Houthis.
In addition, a tenth journalist Salah al-Qaedi has been arbitrarily detained since 28 August 2015, when he was arrested by Houthi rebels in his home. al-Qaedi worked at Suhayl TV Channel, another media outlet affiliated with the al-Islah party. In September 2014 the offices of Suhayl TV were raided by Houthi militias before being shut down entirely in March 2015.
The journalists now face charges of “collaborating with the enemy” which carries the death penalty under Houthi law. All ten journalists will be represented in court by Yemeni lawyer, Abdel Majeed Farea Sabra.
“Journalists are at considerable risk during times of conflict as they are often working to expose corruption and violations on the ground. The international community must act swiftly to ensure the safety of journalists, particularly in conflict zones and most definitely in protecting the journalists jailed in Yemen for nothing more than doing their jobs,”
— Louise Pyne-Jones, Head of Research at the International Observatory of Human Rights
During their time in the Political Security Prison in Sana’a, these individuals have been subjected to torture including; beatings, deprivation of water and being forced to hold cinder blocks for several hours.
In retaliation to peaceful protesting undertook by the families during World Press Freedom Day, 2017, restrictions have since been placed on the ability of family members to visit the detained journalists.
It has been reported that all ten have suffered from illness and medical conditions caused or aggravated by their conditions and treatment. While some have been taken to hospital outside the prison for treatment, they have not subsequently been given the correct medication. Others have been denied medical treatment altogether.
In June last year, Anwar al-Rakan died just two days after being released by the Houthi rebels as a result of the torture he experienced whilst being detained for nearly a year. This raises concerns for the ten journalists livelihoods even if they are found not guilty by the Houthi Court.
Yemen and the press
Since conflict erupted in Yemen, between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the forces loyal to the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi , the country has been plunged into an unprecedented human crisis. Thousands of civilians have been killed, famine is an ever constant threat to millions and an outbreak of cholera is killing one person every hour. The conflict has worsened with the start of the Saudi-led coalition, supported with US, UK and French arms sales, airstrike campaign in support of the internationally-recognised government in 2015.
Yet this conflict is so chronically under-reported that it has become known as the “forgotten war”. This media coverage – or lack thereof- is by design. The different warring parties are carefully constructing a climate of fear and intimidation that stifles the ability of journalists to perform their duty. In a time when the voices of journalists are needed most, their voices are being suppressed.
“In light of the war, journalists have been targeted deliberately and systematically because of their work”
— Afrah Nasser, Yemeni blogger and Journalist
The environment for journalists has become particularly bad in places under Houthi control. There has been countless reports of individuals being assaulted on the streets for nothing more than carrying cameras and other equipment that can identify them as a journalist.
Speaking anonymously, a Yemeni freelance journalist told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) “My colleagues and I think that there [is] no real reporting from inside the capital or anywhere Houthis are controlling” such is the threat for those who will not toe the Houthi line.
In 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that two journalists had been killed on the outskirts of Taiz, a city in southwestern Yemen, whilst covering the conflict. According to reports the two journalists came under fire and took refuge in a nearby building. The Houthi forces proceeded to fire a shell at the building, killing freelance cameraman Takieddin al-Hudhaifi and Wael al-Absi who worked for the official Yemen TV channel.
“Journalists are not combatants and they must not pay the price for Yemen’s conflict. The Houthis should immediately release all journalists in their custody”
— Sherif Mansour, CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator
Sadly, this is not an isolated example, a total of 35 journalists have died in Yemen – 8 of whom were killed in 2018. An additional 53 journalists have been kidnapped or arrested over the same period.
Currently at least 17 journalists and citizen journalists are being held hostage in Yemen – 16 of which are held by the Houthis – with the country ranking 168th out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Who are the Houthis?
The Ansah Allah group – commonly referred to as the Houthis – was founded in 1990 as a theological movement to represent the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, which makes up around one-third of Yemen’s population.
The Houthi movement experienced a swift rise in prominence following the demise of Ali Abdulla Saleh’s premiership, a Saudi ally who had long been held in contempt of the Shia Yemenis. Several protests and assassination attempts resulted in Saleh resigning in 2012, leaving the Houthis as one of the only revolutionary groups with any military experience. This military prowess allowed them to steadily gain control passed their northern heartlands.
Today the Houthis control of the capital Sanaa and the key port of Hodeidah, of which 80% of the country’s imports flow. In seizing the capital in 2015 the Houthis forced the leader of the internationally recognised government – Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – into exile.