Exclusive interview: Journalists being used as human shields, jailed in Covid-19 infested cells and traded for prisoners of war in Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias.
World Press Freedom Day 2021 marks another year on death row for four Yemeni journalists; Abdul Khaleq Imran, Akram El Walidi, Harith Hamid and Tawfiq Al-Mansouri.
Five of the original ten journalists, unlawfully arrested and imprisoned in Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias, were freed on 15 October 2020.1 The International Observatory of Human Rights exclusively interviewed four of the recently released prisoners — Hisham Ahmed Saleh Tarmoom, Hisham Al Yousfi, Issam Amin Bel Ghaith, and Haitham Abdulrahman Al Shehab. The freed journalists were swapped by their captors in return for Houthi fighters captured by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels on the ground, as part of an UN-negotiated prisoner exchange deal between Houthi rebels and the official Yemeni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
At the time of the publication of this investigation, the four journalists were in Egypt undergoing medical support. They shared their harrowing story with IOHR and talked about the human rights abuse, torture and the unjust trial they endured in the Houthi-led court in Yemen. The freed reporters are calling on the international community to help release their colleagues left behind and to end the incarceration of all journalists in Yemen. In 2020, on World Press Freedom Day, IOHR appealed for the full release of all journalists illegally held in Yemen in an open letter signed by journalists, diplomats, human rights experts, academics, activists, and press freedom organisations who called for the immediate and unconditional release of the journalists convicted in a trial that can only be described as a travesty of justice.
This appeal followed an in-depth investigation into the original case and documented the human rights violations and court discrepancies of the journalists who were clearly being used as bargaining chips by the Houthis in return for the release of their fighters from prison. https://observatoryihr.org/campaign/saveyemenijournalists/
On World Press Freedom Day 2021, Valerie Peay, IOHR Director once again called for their unequivocal release of the four journalists sentenced to death and all journalists recently arrested while simply doing their job in Yemen.
“One year on and the four journalists still face execution in Yemen. IOHR spoke last week to four journalists who have been imprisoned and tortured in the same prison where their four colleague are currently detained, facing the same ill-treatment but worse—the uncertainty of the implementation of the death sentence they face at any moment. We now know the extent of torture, physical and psychological abuse they have undergone. Their captors continue, with impunity, to try and trade journalists for military captives. It’s time they received their freedom with no strings attached.”
Harrowing Human Rights Violations Revealed During IOHR’s Exclusive Interview with the Recently Freed Yemeni Journalists
The eye-opening interview IOHR conducted with four of the five journalists recently released confirmed the brutality of the Houthi militia and revealed and confirmed groundbreaking information surrounding the violations carried out by the Houthis including the details of the treatment of the journalists while in detention, being subject to torture, overhearing discussions around prisoner swap deals, the murder of two journalists, and subsequent threats of being used as human shields.
Arrest, trial and torture
Like other journalist reports, Issam Amin Bel Ghaith described being arbitrarily detained when men came to his home in Sanaa, capital of Yemen,
“We are journalists and were abducted from the capital Sanaa not the battlefields. We were taken from our places of residence to be included in a swap deal in exchange for Houthi fighters although we are journalists”
It seemed that neither the prisoners, nor their captors knew why they were taken other than to be used as bargaining chips. Hisham Al Yousfi said of his trial; “We assigned a lawyer but he was not allowed to plead for our case, he was not allowed to take a copy of the case file. The trial or litigation has not been rights-based procedures nor was it based on legal measures”. Once in custody Al Yousfi highlighted the arbitrary nature of their detention,
“We spent 1955 days in the custody of the Houthi group during which we moved between more than one prison. [In] Habra remand we started a hunger strike because of the lack of reasons that justify our imprisonment”.
The case against them stated they were guilty of “Broadcasting controversial rumours and fake news aimed at weakening the possibility of defending the country and the moral of the citizens, spreading horror among the people, damaging the status quo by forming websites, pages on the internet, and social media accounts”. Their response was that as journalists they were reporting what they saw unfolding in Yemen.
Hisham Ahmed Saleh Tarmoom was more direct about the judicial process:
“We were released in a prisoner swap which the UN sponsored. This all was for nothing but political horse-trading. The judge who pronounced the sentence against us appeared in a video on the pro-Houthi Al-Maseera and Yemen TV channels whilst calling for mobilization to battlefields, He is a Houthi militia supporter. The verdicts were issued by other parties [the judge] is not in control of anything, he’s just a tool. We even saw him reading the verdict from his mobile phone. It seemed he was receiving messages from parties guiding him.”
Once in prison the journalists found out the nature of their captors in trying to establish a case against them through torture interrogation and psychological pressures. Abdulrahman Al Shehab described general prison conditions where “no one was allowed to talk inside the cell. Just talking to your inmate was a punishable crime” while Hisham Al Yousfi spoke of the investigation he endured,
“We were assaulted and physically tortured, we were beaten with rifles and also hit and punched in the stomach, the back and other parts of the body. There were also threats of using electric shocks by wiring electric cables into our feet” ending that “[he] fainted during investigation as a result of the psychological pressure”.
Hisham Ahmed Saleh Tarmoom, a young man sitting in a hotel room in Cairo wearing a neck brace spoke quietly of his treatment.
“They went on beating us barbarically specially on the back of the neck which caused me a slipped disc. I was in so much pain from the outset of detention but I did not realize it was a slipped disc due to the lack of medical care until I arrived in Egypt in January. In the interrogation room I was beaten on the neck and the stomach barbarically. I was forced to stand for several hours sometimes on one foot”
The interviews reveal the cruelty of the Houthi torture techniques aimed mainly at forcing the captured journalists to confess about crimes they did not commit. Siting safely in front of the camera in Cairo, journalist Issam said,”
“We were being tortured…beaten, with rifles. We were beaten with sticks, electric cables. We were beaten with batons, hands, feet…”
Another journalist, Haitham AbudulRahamn described psychological torture including threats made by the Houthis to target his family members. Even attaining food and water had become a mission for the jailed journalists. Abdulrahman explained to IOHR the extent of the torture he endured:
“When we asked for water, they would bring us muddy water. We were unable to drink it. It was sticky.”
The psychological torture did not stop there. The guards purposely took him blindfolded to stand outside the cell of his colleague Akram Al Walidi who was screaming loudly as he was being tortured behind closed doors.
Threat of being used as a human shield
Hisham Tarmoom tells IOHR the story of the two journalists that were killed and allegedly used by the Houthis as human shields. Abdullah Qabel, 26, a correspondent for the Yemeni Youth Channel and Belqis Channel, and Youssef Al Eizri, 25, a reporter for Suhail TV in Dhamar Governorate were detained at a Houthi militia checkpoint, after they discovered a tribal meeting in the province of Dhamar in the south of Haddar, northern Yemen. The tribal group were Houthi opposition members and this was what triggered their detention on 20 May 2015.
The Houthis detained the two journalists in Jabal Harran, an area that was, according to a number of media reports and witnesses’ testimonials, used by the group for military purposes. A military facility there was bombed by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on May 21, 2015, killing Abdullah and Youssef along with other detainees.
Hisham told IOHR:
“We were well aware that those two journalists had been abducted by Houthi militias and were put in an area targeted by the coalition troops’ aircraft shelling. That area was targeted and the two journalists, Abdullah Al-Qabdel and Yosuf Al-Aizari, were killed.”
The use of human shields in munitions warehouses, or similar military and strategic facilities, is a tactic that is used in conflict to either deflect the enemy from shelling, or conversely because they are known targets of the opposition.2
The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, a Yemeni organisation established in 1976 to defend the rights of journalists and freedom of opinion and expression, condemned the incident and held the Houthi militia responsible for the crime and using journalists and civilians as human shields. They added, “this militia holds civilians as human shields by detaining them in military sites.”
The tragic fate of these two journalists was echoed as a constant warning to the four journalists. During interrogation sessions the journalists were often threatened that they would be used as human shields and would be positioned at the Houthi’s ammunition and weapons warehouse. Hisham Ahmed Saleh Tarmoom described what was threatened to him and others.
“I was also threatened that I would be taken to a gun warehouse and are told that my fate would be the same as of Abdullah Al-Qabdel and Yosuf Al-Aizari We were well aware that those two journalists had been abducted by the Houthi militias and were put in an area targeted by the Coalition Troops’ aircraft shelling “
Hisham’s testimony supports previous claims that Houthi militia were using civilians as human shields. However, it is not only journalists that have been used in this way. Shockingly reports of the use of displaced people as human shields creates an additional brutal violation. In February 2021, Yemen’s Minister of Information Muammar Al-Aryani accused the Houthis of targeting displacement camps in Marib. In a Twitter post he pointed to the clear violation of international humanitarian law relating to the protection of civilians in conflict, calling for, “… an international investigation into the crimes of Houthi militia against displacement camps in Marib province,”
Sadly, the use of civilians as human shields by the Houthi militia is nothing new. In 2018, during a meeting with Lisa Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Prime Minister, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed called on the UN and the international community to take action, and informed her of the Houthi use of human shields:
“The Iranian-backed Houthi militia controls the city, takes civilians as human shields, deprives them of humanitarian aid and sells it in the market for their personal gain and to finance their wars,”3
However, this was not the first nor last instance of the barbaric use of civilians as human shields. As early in the conflict as 2016, a report to the U.N. Security Council revealed that the Houthis had, “concealed fighters and equipment in or close to civilians in Al Mukha in the Taiz Governorate “with the deliberate aim of avoiding attack”,4 in a manner similar to the horrors described by Hisham.
The use of human shields is an unquestionable violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – Rule 97: The use of human shields is prohibited. It is demonstrated in the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions as well as the Additional Protocol I, which governs laws around international armed conflicts (IACs).5
COVID: treatment and negligence
Right from the start of the COVID-19 crisis UN working group the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen asserted their, “deep concern deep concern about the potential risks of the spread of COVID-19 among detainees and prisoners in Yemen.”6 Conditions in prisons were particularly dire, and Yemen’s humanitarian crisis had led to a widespread lack of healthcare and infrastructure across the country. Many of the 3,400 medical facilities in the country have been damaged or destroyed at some point in the conflict.7
A Euro-Med Monitor report of January 2021 detailed how widespread COVID-19 was in the three main detention centres in Sana’a: The Political Prison, the Habra Prison, and the Central Prison. The 40-page report detailed interviews with prisoners, who described the violations by the Houthis towards them. Former prisoners in Houthi prisons in this report detail similar methods of torture and the deprivation of medicine and painkillers described by Hisham and Essam.
IOHR’s interview with the four freed journalists tells of harrowing conditions, the rapid spread of the deadly virus and how the Political prison cruelly hid any knowledge of the disease from them. Hisham Tarmoom describes getting infected there:
“I was sick of coronavirus whilst put in the Political Security prison in 2020. I remember that was in the month of Ramadan. I had feverish symptoms such as severe sore throat to the extent that I felt as if injured in the throat, choking. Severe headache…fever. When we told them that this was coronavirus they would say to us: “You journalists, what do you want? You are saboteurs. You are looking for things to provoke people.”
“We received no medication nor did we realise it was coronavirus. They denied that the illness we had was coronavirus. This continued until the doctor came to treat us from other sicknesses. He informed us that we all were sick of coronavirus and that the jail ward and the whole prison was infected. We were asking whether or not this was coronavirus. The answer was always no
“After a while, the doctor came and said “you were infected and we didn’t want to tell you”. Patients were not isolated from each other. There were no masks. No preventive measures against coronavirus “
Essam describes not having access to medicine or getting checkups. On the occasions that they were given medicines, they were often expired. “Whatever symptoms you have you would be given the same medicine”.
Prisoner exchange deals
The negotiations over the UN-facilitated prisoner swap started as a part of confidence building measures (CBMs) aimed at negotiating peace. The talks began in Sweden in December 2018 and are named the Stockholm Agreement after the Swedish capital where the talks were held. During the talks, both warring parties agreed to make an exchange of a total of 15,000 prisoners.8 Finally on the 15 October 2020, both parties took a constructive step by releasing more than 1,000 prisoners – the largest prisoner exchange since the start of the conflict.9
Hisham, Issam, Hisham, and Haitham (Abdulrahman) were released as a part of the same agreement. They are of course happy to have been freed but have some concerns around the prisoner swap agreement itself. Hisham Tarmoom is particularly displeased with the prison swap process and feels that the exchange of journalists for armed militants is an unequal one. Issam concurs:
“It’s not logic that a civilian citizen and a journalist who is doing his job in the capital Sana’a becomes part of a swap deal with a fighter from the battlefield.”
International Humanitarian Law of course supports this, as does Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, “All parties must take constant care to spare civilians and civilian objects throughout military operations”10 But in the complex machinations of international diplomacy, short-term negotiations can take unexpected or unequal turns in order to attain the ultimate long-term goal of lasting peace.11
Their pleas to the international community
Four of their colleagues still face the death penalty after surviving years of torture in Houthi prisons. Hisham, Issam, Hisham, and Haitham (Abdulrahman) are now calling for the release of the remaining journalists. Hisham Tarmoom: “I wish the Houthis are pressured into releasing all fellows and all those whom it abducted from their workplaces and houses in Sana’a and elsewhere and in the places under the control of the Houthi militias.”
“We will demand the international community to do justice to us. We are hopeful that they will cooperate and respond to our calls and appeals to the UN as victims who suffered torture and violations and are still suffering from the impact of prison.”
Watch their compelling testimonials here:
- Welcoming Mass Prisoner Swap in Yemen as ‘Airlift of Hope’, Speakers Urge Government, Houthi Rebels to Negotiate Durable Peace, during Security Council Briefing
- Confidence-building measures continue in new Yemen prisoner-swap talks
Press Freedom in Yemen
Yemen is currently one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), creators of the word press freedom index, refer to Yemen as an “appalling situation”, citing the division of Yemen “into areas controlled by the Houthi rebels, the so-called legitimate government and southern separatists has exacerbated the media’s polarization.”
The country has faced severe repression of media freedoms since the start of the conflict in 2014. As well as the immediate and constant threat of danger to journalists, censorship and the blocking of social media platforms, such as WhatsApp, has been prevalent throughout the conflict. According to the 2019 #KeepItOn report, Yemen accounted for the majority of internet shutdowns in the Middle East region. The Houthis have made their hatred of the media very clear. In 2016, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi notoriously declared in a televised speech that, “media workers are more dangerous to our country than the traitors and mercenaries of security forces”. In January 2020, they made a clear demonstration of this by damaging cables that caused an internet shutdown, cutting 80% of internet capacity in Yemen.
According to the International Federation of journalists (IFJ), Yemen ranks seventh in the world for having the most journalists imprisoned. The IFJ launched White Paper on Global Journalism, a report that was published in December 2020. It states that 44 media workers have been killed in Yemen in the past 10 years.
- Yemen: Five journalists released as part of a prisoner exchange
- Amnon Rubenstein and Yaniv Roznai, Human Shields Modern Armed Conflicts: The Need for a Proportionate Proportionality, vol 22 Stanford Law & Policy Review 93 (2011)
- Houthis use civilians as human shields in Hodeidah — Yemen prime minister
- Exclusive: U.N. report on Yemen says Houthis used human shields, Islamic State got cash
- Rule 97. Human Shields
Human Shields in International Humanitarian Law: A Guide to the Legal Framework
- Human rights experts call for immediate release of political prisoners and detainees in yemen given risk of spread of covid-19
- Coronavirus: Five reasons why it is so bad in Yemen
- Yemen’s warring sides resume prisoner swap talks in Jordan
- Celebrations as Yemen civil war prisoners freed in huge swap
- Welcoming Mass Prisoner Swap in Yemen as ‘Airlift of Hope’, Speakers Urge Government, Houthi Rebels to Negotiate Durable Peace, during Security Council Briefing
- Mason , Simon J. A. and Matthias Siegfried, “Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in Peace Processes”, In: Managing Peace Processes: Process related questions. A handbook for AU practitioners, Volume 1, African Union and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2013: 57-77