Four Yemeni journalists have been sentenced to death by an Iranian-backed Houthi court in Yemen. The case was originally brought against ten journalists who have been detained since 2015 mostly in the Political Security Prison.
The four journalists Abdel-Khaleq Amran, Akram al-Walidi, Hareth Hamid and Tawfiq al-Mansouri were convicted of “collaborating with the enemy” according to their lawyer Abdel Majeed Sabra.
The remaining six journalists were found guilty and sentenced to “time-served.” They will remain on probation for three years and will have to report to the police station on a daily basis and are obliged to respond to questions about their movements and activities.
Judge Mohamed Mefleh, preceding over the case, reached his verdict on the fourth hearing after the trial started on 9 December 2019. According to a journalist affiliated with IOHR who had attended the second hearing on 1 January 2020, the court proceedings were like a “circus”. At times, the judge banned journalists and private citizens from entering the court and he placed obstacles against the lawyers, making their presentation of the defense a “complicated mission in itself”.
The Iranian-backed Houthi militants have been at war with the Saudi-led coalition for years in a bloody armed conflict that has left Yemen with the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance—a crisis documented in a study published by IOHR in 2018.
Valerie Peay, the Director of the International Observatory in Human Rights based in London is currently working with a team of journalists and lawyers in Yemen who are following the developments of the case.
“Four journalists face the death penalty for simply doing their job. The price for 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.”
In the official prosecution charge sheet acquired by IOHR, the ten journalists were accused of spurious accusations including:
“Broadcasting controversial rumors 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 while running them secretly from hotels they used it to spread fake news and statements that support the Saudi offensive and its coalition to weaken the state of Yemen with the intention of weakening the militarily defensive preparations staged to defend the country by the armed forces. This is based on the information found on the computers and mobile phones confiscated from the journalists at the time of the crime”
Testimonies and documents acquired by IOHR indicate that the Houthis have been using some prisoners and journalists in prisoner swaps to release some of their fighters captured during the conflict. Videos acquired by IOHR indicate that some journalists were shot by Houthi fighters in cold blood while reporting on the field. In addition to the sheer animosity toward the press, there are at least 37 Yemeni journalists languishing behinds bars on questionable charges in Houthi managed detention centres. Yemen’s appalling record of treatment of journalists ranks it 168 out of 180 on the RSF 2019 World Press Freedom index. Delivering such a draconian sentence of the death penalty for these four journalists will plummet Yemen even further in 2020 unless there is redress now.
An image sent to IOHR from one of the family members of the ten journalists shows a peaceful vigil organised in the city of Mareb September in 2019 calling for the release of their loved one—the innocent journalists.
Amnesty International, amongst other civil society actors, have condemned the “trumped-up” charges and voiced concern over the livelihood of these reporters, who were beaten, deprived of water and forced to hold cinder blocks for several hours.
The hearing took place unexpectedly according to Abdul Majeed Sabra, the lawyer defending the reporters:
“I was shocked when I was informed on Monday morning that the first hearing session for the 10 journalists I am defending has started, because I have been following their case on a daily basis, and a day before I asked a specialist in charge of the journalists’ case in the court about the date of the first hearing session, he told me that it is planned for next week,”
“If the defendants did not insist that I must attend the hearing session, the court would have held the session without a lawyer,” Sabra added.
Mr. Al Masouri’s brother, Abdulla Al Mansouri, told The Committee to Protect Journalists:
“[He was beaten] with sticks, cables, iron bars, rifle butts, and their fists, as well as by being forced to hold cinder blocks for several hours and preventing him from drinking water for up to a day,”
The conditions for journalists have deteriorated in light of the ongoing battles between the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Saudi led coalition has started in 2014. The Yemen war has so far led to the death of tens of thousands and plunged the country into what the United Nations refers to as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian disaster’. It is believed that over 37 journalists still remain in prison.
The trial happens under the context of the United Nations recent call for a global ceasefire, to permit states to focus on tackling the spread of COVID-19. Last week, Yemen reported its first case of coronavirus, sparking fears that the deadly epidemic may be spreading in a country where years of war has already almost destroyed the health system.
Despite natural skepticism from both sides, the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have indicated they may be willing to adhere to a ceasefire.
IOHR calls for the immediate and unconditional release of these journalists and the others still held. At a time when the world is fighting a global pandemic this is an opportunity to maintain the ceasefire in Yemen and show compassion for its citizens and those who report on their plight.