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Exclusive Investigation: Houthi Court Unjustly Convicts 10 Journalists of “Spying” and sentences 4 to death

Four journalists have been sentenced to death in Yemen for the “crime” of being journalists.

This draconian sentence was delivered to muzzle the local media at a time when the world focuses on the temporary ceasefire between the Iranian backed rebels- The Ansar Allah group; otherwise known as the Houthis, and the UN recognised official Yemeni government, led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, backed by a Saudi led coalition.

The Houthi rebels have been the de facto government in Sana’a since seizing the Yemeni capital in 2014. It was in Sana’a on 11 April 2020 that 10 journalists were brought to a Houthi court, without due process or any notice, they were presented to receive a verdict of “spying” or “collaborating with the enemy.” The allegations have been described as absurd and fit into an established pattern of Houthi efforts to suppress freedom of the press in the parts of the country they control.

Throughout the conflict journalists have been targeted and many have been arbitrarily detained, attacked, jailed or killed. All ten journalists on trial had already suffered five years in inhumane conditions, suffering torture and abuse.
 
International organisations around the world have called for the release of these journalists from prison including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)The International Federation of JournalistsCommittee to Protect Journalists, and numerous other local and international NGOs and media organisations.
 
Of the ten journalists sentenced on 11 April only four were given the death penalty.

Sentenced to Death

Akram al-Walidi

Al Rabi3 news website

Sentenced to Death

Hareth Homaid

AlSahwa.net and Al-Rabi3 news website

Sentenced to Death

Abdel-Khaleq Amran

Islah Online

Sentenced to Death

Tawfiq al-Mansouri

Masdar TV

The other six journalists in the trial received time-served sentences and will now serve probation with daily visits to a police station for the next three years. Although technically free, these men are still under the control of their captors through this probation.

Hassan Enab

Yemen Youth TV

Hisham Tarmoom

Masdar TV

Haitham al-Shihab

AlAhali newspaper

Hisham al-Yousefi

Yemen YouTube

Issam Amin Ahmed Belghith

Nass FM

Salah al-Qaadi

Sahil Fadaa’iya TV

During their near five year detention, the accused journalists were repeatedly tortured by Houthi-aligned guards. They were regularly beaten, deprived of water, and suffered other forms of torture including being forced to hold cinder blocks for hours. They were also not allowed to communicate with their lawyers.

In an open letter, addressed to Field Marshall Mahdi al-Mashat the President of the Supreme Political Council of the Houthi movement and copied in to Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR) a London based NGO, called for the dropping the charges against the 10 journalists, immediately abolishing the death sentences given to the four journalists and the unconditional release of all arbitrarily detained journalists in accord with international law. In a conflict zone, anyone who tortures, unlawfully detains and executes journalists or any media professional is committing a war crime. International organisations, award-winning journalists, lawyers, politicians, members of parliament, academics, ambassadors, and former prisoners who joined IOHR and signed the letter calling on the respectable authoritative figures to take action to save those journalists understand the pain those reporters and their families have endured and value the core of press freedom and echo the message of peace The International Observatory of Human Rights is calling for:

“drop the charges against all 10 journalists who have been on trial, headed by Judge Muhammad Muflih, including the six journalists who were convicted in the case.”

The War in Yemen- a brief history

The war in Yemen has its roots in 2011 during the Arab Spring when a series of disturbances were followed by the overthrow of Yemen’s long-time dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. On 21 September 2014, Houthi rebels took over key buildings in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Despite efforts at mediation, the crisis grew when in January 2015 the Houthi militants stormed the presidential palace, residence of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthi militia then proceeded to seize the majority of the country.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their allies launched an intervention in Yemen to support the internationally recognised government under the terms of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. At the time the Saudi and Emirati led operation was backed by the US, UK and France.

A previous investigation by IOHR looked at the humanitarian crisis sparked by the conflict. The war has created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with some 25 million people in need of humanitarian aid; 80 per cent of the population. The continued fighting and other hazards make it difficult for international aid agencies to operate. On land over 1 million landmines have been deployed since the start of the conflict and at sea, the Houthis have used free-floating naval mines.    
 
Over 233,000 people have been killed in Yemen, including 12,600 civilians. The conflict has also expanded beyond Yemen with Houthi shelling, and rocket attacks in Saudi Arabia that have killed over 500. Additional limited naval clashes have also occurred in the Bab El Mandeb, the Red Sea waterway, between the Red Sea and Africa where both sides have conducted naval operations.
 
While 2018 was the deadliest in the conflict, last year proved to be little better while the Yemeni people continue to suffer the humanitarian crisis and now face the Coronavirus pandemic.

Journalists and the war in Yemen

The war in Yemen is entering its sixth year, and gross human rights violations are increasingly the norm. Journalists reporting on the conflict have not been spared. In 2019 alone, the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YJS) recorded 134 “violations of media and journalists’ rights.” Yemen was ranked at the near bottom (167 out of 180) on the Reporters without Borders (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

Violations of media and journalists’ rights

134
in 2019

According to the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YJS)

Amount of Journalists that have died

16
since 2014

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Journalists that have been murdered

35
in 5 years

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Journalists that have been detained

250
since 2014

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

 
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 16 journalists in Yemen have died in Yemen since 2014 in the line of duty. The fate of one journalist remains unclear. Waheed Mohammed Naji Haider was abducted by at least two gunmen from Houthi controlled Sana’a in 2015 and was never seen again. Local NGOs say the numbers are far greater.
 
“In the past five years, there were more than 1,300 different cases of violations against the press, including 35 murders of journalists, some of whom were attacked by sniper fire in front of TV cameras while they were doing their jobs,” said Nabil Al Ausaidi, head of legal affairs for the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate in an interview with IOHR. Ausaidi says some 250 journalists have been detained in Yemen since the conflicts began for various periods. 

Both sides in the conflict have sought to control the media story. However, when the Houthis took control of Sana’a they quickly consolidated their hold to control and suppress media organisations based in the capital and then extended this out to all areas under their control. This has manifested itself from blunt violence to electronic censorship, such as blocking access to “WhatsApp” and other popular mobile messaging applications.
 
“Houthi forces have raided news outlets, detained journalists, and banned websites, while satellite TV operators ceased to broadcast stations that recently came under Houthi control, according to news reports,” wrote CPJ in a 2015 article.

Journalists and media professionals’ treatment in custody

 
The ten journalists sentenced on 11 April 2020 have already spent over five years in a Houthi prison. During their confinement they have been deprived of water, denied access to their lawyers, repeatedly beaten and tortured by prison guards. For example, the journalists were forced to hold cinder blocks for several hours painfully above their heads. 

Anwar al-Rakan

Journalist Anwar al-Rakan died 2 days after his release due to poor treatment in prison

However, many journalists in custody have faced torture. Anwar al-Rakan, a journalist who was arrested in 2018, spent a year in a Houthi prison. He died just two days after his release in 2019 due to his poor treatment he received as a prisoner.

One former inmate, who survived torture at the hands of his captors, described being served rancid rice crawling with cockroaches. Other journalists who arrested by the Houthis and later released have similarly reported beatings and being denied access to medical care. One of those released journalists, who spoke to IOHR after being involved in a separate case, reported that he had being tied and left hanging to an iron bar in a cruel form of torture. officials, in some instances also prevented the families of journalists from purchasing medicines for them.

Yousef Aglaan, a Yemeni journalist who was imprisoned in a Houthi prison for an extended period and described his ordeal in an interview with IOHR.

“Most, if not all detainees, were tortured and experienced physical and psychological torture.”

Yousef Aglaan

Previously imprisoned Yemeni Journalist

“Personally, I was subjected to physical torture, but I’m lucky, considering what happened to other detainees. I was beaten in all over my body, and my hands and legs were tightened together on to a stick between two disks, and I was hung in between in the same manner a chicken is hung in a roaster. That torture method was so painful that nobody could stand it for a few minutes.”

Freed journalist Yousef Al Aglaan told IOHR how he was exchanged for a Houthi prisoner of war.

“My family tried for a long time to free me. We paid the Houthis a lot of money for nothing and got empty promises. The Houthi leadership took advantage of the situation. An elderly tribal leader close to one of my brothers negotiated a deal between the government, the army, and the Houthis in order to swap me with one of the Houthi prisoners. The deal was completed and I was handed over to the tribal leader. I was lucky to be allowed to stay in Sana’a for a week because a prisoner exchange is basically like going into exile, to extract you far from your family, city, and home where you were born. I was lucky, exile is still better than living in a Houthi prison.”

This image below though not from a Houthi prison shows the sort of torture that Aglaan others in Houthi prisons have had to endure.

“As for psychological torture, there was plenty of it. For example, they used to frighten us during sleep, and horrify us during investigation by threatening us to harm or kidnap our children, wives or brothers,” Aglaan said. 

Yemen confirmed its first Coronavirus case in April. The new Covid-19 global pandemic will add another deadly health hazard for Yemen’s prisoners who live in such crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Journalist arbitrary detention and prisoner swaps

Twenty journalists, including the ten who are at the focus of this report, have been abducted since the start of this war according to a 2019 report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Journalists have been held by all sides in the conflict at various points including Yemen’s government, the Houthi and Al Qaeda. Currently the Houthis hold at least 14 journalists who have been abducted in Yemen.
  
The journalists in question were held for nearly five years without trial. Why the long pre-trial detention? Documents obtained by IOHR suggest that, at one point at least, the Houthi authorities considered exchanging the journalists for captured Houthi rebels. This document again suggests how journalists in Yemen are considered bargaining chips for potential prisoner swaps.    
 
“Most of the arrests that take place, whether in the north or in the south or in the east or in the west, are all innocent people who have nothing to do with war,” says Abdel Bari Taher who is a former head of the Yemeni Journalism Syndicate in an interview with IOHR, ” Indeed, swapping journalists, political detainees or those who forcibly disappeared and treating them as prisoners of war is a war crime in the first place. Exchanging those people with [other prisoners] is a heinous crime as well.”

Abdul Bari Taher

Former head of the Yemeni Journalism Syndicate

Waddah Al Mansouri

Brother of Tawfiq Al Masnouri sentenced to death

The journalists were arrested in two separate raids. Nine of those in the trial were arrested during a raid on the Qasr al-Ahlam ( Palace of Dreams) Hotel in Sana’a on June 2015 where many journalists had moved to better report on the conflict due to its communications facilities and electrical supply. A tenth, Salah al-Kaadi, was later arrested in a raid on his home on the 28 August of that same year. After abducting al-Kaadi, Houthi security forces returned and demanded his laptop. Unsatisfied with the family’s response, the Houthi’s promptly arrested seven male relatives of al-Kaadi. They were released after spending 48 hours in jail.
 
All of the ten journalists were held in a special Sana’a prison that is run by the Houthi’s Political Security Organisation. Some of the detained journalists worked for media outlets affiliated with Yemen’s Al-Islah Party which supports Yemen’s internationally recognised government and opposes Houthi control of Yemen.
 
During their captivity, the journalists were regularly stripped naked, beaten, as well as deprived of water, and in one cruel torture, they were forced to hold cinder blocks for several hours. The torture they suffered was also documented by the Association of Mothers of Detainees; a Yemeni NGO focused on political prisoners.

RSF reported that many of them were forced to make filmed confessions after being tortured and were denied food. These reports were verified by IOHR’s research.
 
During the long detention signed documents show that in 2016, Issam Amin Ahmed Belghith, one of the journalists, was not allowed access to funds that had been allocated for his maintenance to the prison so he was not able to use this money to obtain food. By then, he had already been in detention a year so he launched a hunger strike to protest his condition.
 
The journalists were not allowed to speak to their lawyers or the media during their confinement. Furthermore, the Coronavirus has allowed the Yemeni authorities to bar visits from family members to the prisoners. Even when visits were permitted, they were severely limited and in the presence of prison guards to a mere five minutes, according to Amnesty International.

Waddah Al-Mansouri, the brother of journalist Tawfiq Al-Mansouri, spoke to IOHR about his brother’s ordeal and the impact it has had on his family:

“He was transferred by the militias to six prisons, starting with the Criminal Investigation prison. Now he is held in the Political Security prison in Sana’a, and we cannot visit him. The last time we visited him was almost two and a half years ago when my mother visited him. During that last visit, he was brutally beaten in front of my mother, who was greatly affected. Then, he was transferred to a solitary prison, and we couldn’t see him since then.

My brother Tawfiq is in a very bad health condition. I remember that the Journalists Syndicate, the Federation of Arab Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, appealed two years ago to different organisations to rescue him after his health deteriorated as a result of constant and brutal torture, denial of food, and the practice of the worst physical and psychological torture.”

Court proceedings – trial and sentencing

The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Sana’a is tasked with handling cases involving ‘terrorism’ and ‘state security’. In reality, it has become a kangaroo court for dealing with the Houthi regime’s opponents, including journalists, to whom it frequently applies the death penalty.
 
In September of last year, the verdict in another mass trial saw 30 academics, trade unionists, intellectuals and faith leaders received similar death sentences for “spying.”
 
In 2018, this court handed out Yemen’s first-ever death penalty sentence to a woman on similarly spurious espionage-related charges. Amnesty International described the verdict against a 22-year old mother as “part of a wider pattern of the Houthis using the judiciary to settle political scores.” Local NGOs have reached similar conclusions.

Tawfeeq al-Humaidi

Lawyer and Head of the SAM Human Rights Organizations in Yemen

Tawfeeq Al Humaidy, a lawyer and Head of the SAM Human Rights Organisations in Yemen told IOHR in an interview before the verdict.

“The case of the ten journalists is a dangerous one because they were referred to this specialized court that had issued so far more than 100 death sentences…

Those journalists have faced numerous violations, most importantly is the forced disappearances they faced, their families did not know of their location for two years.”

An investigation by IOHR suggests that Houthi rebels had previously sought to use the journalists as bargaining chips to exchange them for Houthi fighters held as prisoners of war, during negotiations with the officially recognised coalition backed government of Yemen. However, this did not happen and the Houthi Political Security Organisation responsible for terrorism-related cases took over the case in December 2018.
 
The trial of the ten journalists finally began on 9 December 2019 under Judge Mohamed Mefleh. A journalist affiliated with IOHR managed to attend the second hearing on 1 January 2020 and described the court proceedings as resembling a “circus.” The same post described efforts to defend the accused as “a complicated mission in itself”. Throughout the trial the judge also banned journalists and private citizens from attending. Even when they were allowed to attend, they were often humiliated as one of the lawyers involved in the case Abdel Basit Ghazi wrote in a public Facebook post. 
 
The docket of charges prepared by the Public Prosecution in Case No. 40 of 2019 (registered under no. 258 of year 2017) stated that the journalists in question had reported “news, data, and rumors of false and malicious nature; inflammatory propaganda with the intention of weakening the defense of the nation, weakening public morale, interrupting public security, creating panic amongst people, and harming public interests.”

The indictment prepared by the prosecution further requests the death penalty in its reference to the need for the journalists to receive “maximum penalties” in accordance with Articles 16 (which includes the death penalty ) as well 21, 103, and 136 of the Republican decree No.12 instituted in 1994. The document was signed by Khaled Saleh Al-Maweri, the Chief Prosecutor in Sana’a.

An official document reveals a discussion on September 9, 2018 between three members of the Yemeni prosecutor’s office about prisoner swaps. The investigator’s clerk writes that the prosecutor was not informed by the Political Security Apparatus that the defendants are still in jail and were not exchanged with POWs. Thus, it was necessary for them to be brought to the court in the presence of their defense according to the law.

Official charge sheet from the Yemeni Prosecutor’s office listing the names of the 10 journalists and the charges brought against them

Therefore, pursuant to provisions No 221 of the penal provisions, the Public Prosecution office is instituting the prosecution against the above mentioned defendants in the Criminal Court of Sanaa to institute the procedures, demanding the maximum penalties under the law and the confiscation of the materials seized according to provision No 103 of the Penal Code.

“During the period from 1st Jan, 2014 – 28th Aug 2015, the above mentioned persons published false news and perplexing propaganda with the purpose of damaging the defensive capabilities of the country, weakening the national morale, and intimidating people by creating internet websites and pages on social media websites, and secretly running them from hotels in Sanaa. Through those websites and pages, those persons published false news and spread lies and rumors advocating the crimes the Saudi aggressors and their allies have committed against the Republic of Yemen. As a result, the army’s readiness and military operations were hampered as clearly shown by the data drawn from their PCs and mobile phones.”

Khaled Saleh Al-Maweri

Chief Prosecutor in Sanaa

Under the civil process, there is no jury, and the judge makes the final verdict. After the fourth hearing, the judge in the case announced that he was ready to make his verdict.

On 7 January 2020 the defense team arrived in good order to the courthouse for a scheduled courtroom session. The defense team including Mrs Ghazi, Al-Hannami, Abdel Majeed Sabra, Abkar and Alhammami “all attended in official uniform” an IOHR monitor noted.  
Also in attendance were several journalists and media representatives, NGOs, including the prominent Yemeni NGO Mwantana for Human Rights.
 
Yet, despite waiting the entire day, the accused journalists never appeared in court that day. According to Abdel Basit Ghazi, one of their defense lawyers, the journalists had not even been summoned to the court. Still, the lawyers were kept waiting to further demoralize those who supported the journalists.

Salah al-Qaadi

Previously imprisoned Yemeni journalist

“And so, procedures and the trial as a whole… drift into violation of the law, the case is admittedly a public opinion one, which affirms that shadowy hands were running the trial and deciding its dates without the knowledge of the court, the prosecution or the defense.”

According to their defense team, the first session of the journalists’ trial was prior to the appearance of the defense team or even the courtroom secretary in what amounted to an effort to hold a secret trial for the press. The verdict was announced on 11 April 2020, much to the shock of those involved in the defense of the journalists and around the world for all those who seek a safe environment for journalists.

As of 27 April 2020, IOHR has been able to verify the release of Salah al-Qaadi one of the six journalists wrongly convicted to “time-served” and placed on probation for three years.

“He continues to suffer from the damage caused to him by the Houthi group as a result of beating and torture,” said Amat Al Hag, his mother in an interview with IOHR subsequent to his release about his ordeal and recovery. 

Four journalists face the death penalty for simply doing their job. The price of freedom of expression should not be a life. IOHR calls for their release and all the reporters and media professionals unjustly jailed in Yemen. Our team on the ground continues to document and investigate the travesty of justice, the torture the journalists endure, and the political nature of the baseless charges.

Valerie Peay, Director
International Observatory of Human Rights

Conclusion

The wrongful conviction of these journalists on 11 April 2020, marks a severe blow to press freedom in the Middle East and West Asia. IOHR calls for the immediate and unconditional release of these journalists and the other political prisoners held in Houthi prisons. Given the global pandemic, a prison stint can quickly become a lethal sentence.
  
These Yemeni journalists and their colleagues are being held in a clear violation of their human rights and mark a potential war crime. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2222, adopted in 2015, called on all parties to protect journalists as does the Geneva Conventions.
 
So far, the Houthi authorities have stated that the convicted journalists will be allowed to appeal the sentence but, without international attention, that trial will likely devolve into a similar travesty of justice.

IOHR’s investigation has found that, not surprisingly, many Yemeni journalists once released do not resume their media. At a time when the Yemeni people need more than ever to have access to a free and unfettered press it is time to lift the censorship and allow journalists to do their job without fear or favour.

#SaveYemeniJournalists

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