Tales of torture and horror: Inside Houthi prisons in Yemen

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Farouk Baakar, a 26-year-old Yemeni doctor from Hodeida, has been detained and tortured by Iran-backed Houthi militia for 15 months, before he was released after his family paid a ransom.

Baakar describes his detention and enforced disappearance a “death-like experience”. He was detained in Sanaa in November 2016 for treating a fighter who fought the Shia militia. 

“They [the Houthis] kept asking me why I had saved his [the fighter’s] life. I told them it was my duty as a doctor,” Bakaar recalled.

He said he was forced out of the hospital he worked at in Sanaa, put in a car and driven away.

Like many prisoners in Yemen, Bakaar’s detention and enforced disappearance left his family unaware of his whereabouts for months.

During that time, Bakaar said, he was detained and tortured in different unidentified prisons.

“I spent 50 days in an underground prison with barely any oxygen. I was hung by my wrists from the ceiling and left in my own feces and urine to rot. I wasn’t allowed to wash once.

“They extracted my fingernails and used a cable to press onto the flesh underneath. I lost consciousness from the sheer amount of pain.

“They burned me with fire and dipped me in water that they’d run an electric current through. They beat me with all sorts of electric cables and iron rods,” explained Bakaar, who said he saw nails, dead animals and body parts laying around in some of the detention centres he was in.

“In that prison, I felt like I was already dead,” he said.

Baakar also recalled that some fellow detainees he met at Houthi detention facilities had their eyesight lost.

I spent 50 days in an underground prison with barely any oxygen. I was hung from the ceiling by my writs and left in my own feces and urine to rot. In that prison, I felt like I was already dead.

Farouk Baakar, former detainee in Houthi prisons

“I saw detainees chained to the walls. They were bleeding around their feet, and their wounds from the chains had become infected with puss and worms.

“One guy had been hung from his penis; he couldn’t urinate for two whole weeks. When I saw him, I knew that was the end of his manhood,” said Baakar who claimed that he was punished for trying to treat some of the detainees.

“As a doctor, I couldn’t see them [other detainees] suffer without trying to help. Whenever I was caught, I was made to experience the same pain they had,” he told Al Jazeera.





“They extracted my fingernails and used a cable to press onto the flesh underneath. I lost consciousness from the sheer amount of pain.” [Courtesy of Farouk Baakar]

The Houthi armed group has controlled large parts of Yemen since late 2014, including the capital.

In conjunction with forces loyal to the late and ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the group has carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions of its opponents as well as enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, reported Amnesty International in February. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also documented many cases of human rights abuses committed by Houthi authorities in Yemen.

“We have documented dozens of cases of arbitrary detention, forced disappearance and mistreatment. It is certainly more than 70 cases since 2014. Yemeni groups have documented far more,” Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher at HRW told Al Jazeera.

While many documented cases are in Houthi-controlled areas, the issue of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture is not happening exclusively in Houthi prisons, according to HRW.






Rights groups urge Yemen war crimes accountability

“It [the human rights abuse] is absolutely a problem in Houthi areas, but it is a wider problem [than that].

“We’ve also documented arbitrary detention and forced disappearances in prisons under government control as well as in areas under the control of UAE-backed forces,” Beckerle told Al Jazeera.

Um Muhammed from the Sanaa-based Association of Abductees’ Mothers told Al Jazeera that her organisation has documented cases of torture in Houthi prisons.

They included “beating, use of sharp objects to penetrate body cavities, hanging, electrocution, burning with fire, and de-nailing. Some families even informed us of receiving dead bodies with obvious signs of torture,” she said. 

Al Jazeera could not receive a comment from Houthis at the time of publication.

Deaths in detention

Deaths in custody have also been documented.

“The ways in which the Houthis are treating those they are detaining involve a myriad of human rights abuses. We have documented extreme forms of abuse including people dying in detention,” Beckerle told Al Jazeera.

While HRW documented two deaths in custody in 2016, but Um Muhammed says the number of deaths in detention is much higher.

“We’ve documented at least 117 cases of death in custody that seem to have either been caused by torture or neglect,” said Um Muhammad. 

One case the association is looking into is the death in custody of Muhammed Ghurab, a 28-year-old pharmacist from Sanaa, who was detained four years ago, and reportedly died in Houthi prisons last week.

The ways in which the Houthis are treating those they are detaining involve a myriad of human rights abuses. We are have documented extreme forms of abuse including people dying in detention.

Kristine Beckerle, Human Rights Watch

According to a source close to Ghurab’s family, the family members received his body on Friday after they were informed by the Houthis that he died as a result of contracting tuberculosis while in detention.

“His family visited him a few weeks ago. His mother nearly passed out from what she saw. He was extremely thin and he complained of severe chest pains,” said the source who did not wish to be named for fear of retribution.

“The symptoms Muhammed had complained of when the family visited didn’t align with tuberculosis,” added the source who believes Ghurab had either died out of neglect or was poisoned.

According to the source, there have been five other cases of reported deaths at the same detention centre – the political security prison in Sanaa – since Ghurab’s death.

“Many mothers of detainees came to Ghurab’s mother and told her that their sons are suffering similar symptoms as Ghurab had; extreme weight loss and severe chest burning and pain,” added the source.

“They worry their sons will reach the same fate as Muhammed.”





The Yemen conflict escalated in March 2015 after a Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries launched a massive bombing campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi advances [Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE] 

Enforced disappearance

Systematic kidnapping and imprisonment are also widely reported in Houthi-controlled areas.

According to Um Muhammed, around 2400 people have been forcefully disappeared across Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen. She told Al Jazeera that her association is in contact with 300 families, whose members have involuntarily disappeared.

“All of the cases we came across go through some period of enforced disappearance. Some are for a few weeks, while others extend to months. Afterwards, families are usually allowed 10 minute-visits each week,” said Um Muhammad.

The dents caused by the chains around my wrists are still deep and visible today.

Abdel Hadi al-Shami, former detainee in Houthi prisons

Abdel Hadi al-Shami, 38, was released about a month ago after a two-year stint in Houthi prisons.

Al-Shami, a leader of the Arbhab tribe, one of the most prominent tribes in Sanaa, says his family was unaware of his whereabouts for five months before they came to visit him for the first time.





“I was chained and hung from the ceiling for hours and then left blindfolded and in solitary confinement for three months.”[Courtesy of Abdel Hadi Al-Shami]

“I was moved from one prison to another without my family knowing anything about where I was,” said Al-Shami.

“When my family finally came to visit me in detention, the visit lasted only eight minutes,” he added.  

Al-Shami said he was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal between his tribe and the Houthis.

He still suffers from the effects of the torture he experienced in detention. 

“I was chained and hung from the ceiling for hours and then left blindfolded and in solitary confinement for three months. I lost some of my eyesight as a result,” said Al-Shami who recalled being left in a cell with a snake for 10 hours. 

“The dents caused by the chains around my wrists are still deep and visible today,” said Al-Shami.

Targeting journalists

Although all Houthi opponents fall victims of the crackdown, activists and journalist remain the prime targets. 

Yousif Ajlan, a 29-year-old former journalist for Al-Masdar news website in Sanaa, is one of them.

The Houthis consider every opponent an enemy or traitor. I left journalism and worked as taxi driver, but the Houthis still came for me.

Yousef Ajlan, former detainee in Houthi prisons

He was detained in October 2016 for a more than year.

“When my finally came to visit me forty days after my abduction, the prison guards beat me and denied me from speaking to them,” recalled Ajlan who was released in November 2017 as part of a prisoner exchange, which he says was agreed between the Houthis and the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“The Houthis consider every opponent an enemy or traitor. I left journalism and worked as taxi driver, but the Houthis still came for me,” said Ajlan who explained that he had been initially detained in 2015 and threatened with death if he did not stop reporting.

“They consider journalists the biggest threat to them. Now, Sanaa is empty of journalists. The few that remain are Houthi propagandists,” said Ajlan, who now lives in Istanbul.

Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni human rights activist, told Al Jazeera that the Houthis strive focuses on supressing their opponent’s voices.

“There was a general feeling among the Houthis that by arresting all the activists since 2011, they could suppress any possible scenario of protest or any form of public anger,” said Shiban. “And so, since September 2014, many of these activists have been picked up from their home and places of work.”

“Today, you can’t see protests against the Houthis in Sanaa, nor hear a single voice of opposition. It [these tactics] have helped them control the narrative coming out [of Sanaa].”

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