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Inside Yemen's epidemic of forced disappearances

April 03, 2023
topic:Human Rights
tags:#democracy, #enforced disappearances, #Yemen, #civil war
by:Mubarak Al-Yousifi
Local NGOs provide a ray of hope for Yemeni civilians abducted by Houthi rebels and government forces.

Since a civil war broke out in Yemen in 2025 between the internationally-recignised government backed by the Saudi military coalition and the Houthi rebel group, both fighting parties have committed a slew of human rights violations against civilians, displacing many from their homes.

Prominent among these violations has been the Houthis' arrest of protesters, journalists and activists who demonstrated against the rebel group in the capital Sana'a. The Houthis seized Yemeni State institutions back in 2014.

According to the Yemeni Network for Rights and Liberties, the Houthis arrested more than 16,000 civilians and forcibly hid an additional 1,500 between the end of 2014 and 2022. It further reported that since 2015 there have been 4 journalists in Houthi prisons facing the death penalty.

Additionally, the Sam Organisation for Rights and Liberties documented more than 5,000 arrests and enforced-disappearance cases during 2016. According the the NGO, 91 percent of these cases were committed by Houthi rebels, 8 percent by the internationally-recognised government and 1 percent by other terrorist groups.

A team of UN experts investigating human rights violations in Yemen has also reported on thousands of abduction and enforced-disappearance cases in which the exact location of the detention camp remains unknown. 

In the period following this wave of arrests, two Yemeni civil organisations have played a key role in releasing detainees across the country: Mwatana for Human Rights and the Abductees' Mothers Association

Supporting detainees, abductees and their families 

Radhya Almutawakel, the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights , spoke to FairPlanet about the NGO's efforts in assisting victims of human rights violations in Yemen. Among other activities, the organisation helps jailed dissidents by providing legal support such as appointing lawyers to them. 

Almutawakel first engaged in human rights work in 2004 during the war between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels group in Sa'ada governorate. In 2007, she was determined to establish a Yemen-based human rights organisation with Abdurshid Al-Fakih, who is currently the deputy chairperson at Mwatana.

However, at that time, the authorities refused to give them permits to launch their NGO.

Almutawakel and Al-Fakih finally got the permits in 2013, as Yemen entered a transitional political period and restrictions on human rights work were eased by the authorities. Speaking with FairPlanet, Almutawakel shared she found herself in a fait accompli that obliged her to work in a war environment with basic resources and a small team.

But despite the ongoing war and a lack of funding, Almutawakel and her team have been able to expand their operations over time and established one of Yemen's largest human rights organisations. Today, Mwatana has headquarters in the Sana'a, Aden and Taiz and operates in eighteen different governorates across the country. 

"The aim of [the organisation] was to build a human rights memory documenting this war's phase in Yemen," she said. "In addition to documenting and monitoring human rights violations, [the NGO was] contributing to the release of detainees, searching for forcibly hidden persons and returning them to their families."

The organisation also delivers cases of human rights violations to international courts to seek resolutions and hold perpetrators accountable.  

Bonyan Jamal, head of Mwatana 's Legal Department for the Defence of Abductees and Forcibly Detained Persons, said to FairPlanet that the organisation's 28 lawyers operate in 18 Yemeni governorates to support detainees, abductees and their families.

"Those lawyers work to defend cases of abductees and forcibly hidden persons, provide legal advice and exert efforts to release them or improving their conditions of detention" she said.

During the war, she added, Mwatana provided legal support to at least 2,959 victims of enforced hidden and arbitrary detention and contributed to the release of 1,233 victims in various governorates across the country. 

the Abductees' Mothers Association

Amat Al-Salam Al-Hajj, the head of the Abductees' Mothers Association, spoke to FairPlanet about the organisation's mission and her personal role in its establishment.

Her involvement began in 2011, after protests demanding the removal of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh resulted in mass arrests. Her resolve to take action was further strengthened in 2014, when the country fell into the hands of the Ansar Allah group (Houthi rebels), who carried out a campaign of arrests of dissidents.

At the time, Amat Al-Salam, along with a group of lawyers, formed an independent organisation for the defense of the abductees. But the Houthis arrested some of them.

She said that she later on established the Association along with abductees' mothers and their female relatives, and that in 2016 they agreed to transform their group into a bona fide institution, a decision that gave birth to the Abductees' Mothers Association.

According to Al-Salam, since 2017 the Association has documented roughly 9,977 cases of kidnapping and arrests and 1,727 cases of enforced disappearance. About 1,773 of these cases involved torture and violence against detainees, and 86 of the cases resulted in death due to medical negligence at detention centers.

She went on saying that 168 detainees were killed due to the bombing of prisons by the Saudi coalition.

The Association has contributed to the release of 1,105 female detainees, and helped improve the detention conditions of numerous prisoners.

Al-Salam has been arrested twice for carrying out her activism. Her first arrest - which lasted a day - took place in Sana'a in 2016 after participating in a demonstration against the Houthis. She was arrested a second time when she tried to travel through the Sana'a airport and was forcibly taken to the Political Security headquarters. She was released later that day. 

Activism in the face of repression 

The two organisations continue operating at great risk of retaliation by the warring parties, who continue to politicise the detainees' crisis and use the latter as pawns they can exchange for prisoners of war, according to Al-Salam.

The Houthis, for instance, used to hand over civilian detainees to the internationally-rcognised government in exchange for their fighters.   

Almutawakel further stated lack of funding continues to present a significant obstacle, as the majority of funds funneled to Yemen are earmarked for humanitarian aid, and human rights advocates receive very little financial support.

Both Almutawakel and Al-Salam reported facing difficulty traveling between the governorates due to cumbersome security procedures, primarily those imposed by Houthi rebels, who prohibit women from traveling without a male guardian.

The internationally-regognised government also refuses to issue or renew work permits for both organisations due to their human rights activities; this comes in addition to ongoing incitement campaigns against the NGOs carried out by both warring parties with the aim of stopping their work.

In the face of these ongling challenges, the organisations are calling on the international community to pressure the fighting parties to abide by Yemeni and international human rights laws that protect civilians from any violations.   

Picture by Julien Harneis.

Article written by:
Mubarak Al-Yousifi
Embed from Getty Images
Both fighting parties have deliberately committed many violations against civilians and displacing many of their homes.
Embed from Getty Images
According to the Yemeni Network for Rights and Liberties, as it mentioned that the Houthis arrested more than 16 thousands of civilians and forcibly hid other 1500 of civilians since end of 2014 until 2022.
Embed from Getty Images
The Association has contributed to the release of 1,105 female detainees, and has also contributed to improving detention conditions in many places.
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