Speaking to TRT World, five Yemeni journalists detail their horrific experience in a series of Houthi prisons where they were subjected to physical and psychological torture after being detained in 2015.
On 5 October 2020, five imprisoned Yemeni journalists were released as part of a prisoner swap deal between their captors – the Houthi militias – and the internationally recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, after being held and tortured for five years in a series of prisons in and around the capital Sanaa.
Four of their colleagues, however, remain in prison and have been sentenced to death, despite the protests of human rights groups around the world, which have accused the Houthi militias of targeting journalists for doing their job.
In this exclusive with TRT World, the five released journalists, Haitham al Shihab, Hisham Ahmed Tarmoom, Hisham Abdulmalik al Yousefi, Essam Amin Balgheeth and Hassan Abdullah Annab, break their silence to share details of their horrific ordeal with the world, and thus raising further concerns for the welfare of their colleagues who await execution, including Abdul Khaleq Amran, Akram al Walidi, Hareth Humaid, and Tawfiq al Mansour.
With the help of an interpreter, Haitham al Shihab, an unofficial spokesperson for the five freed journalists, describes the night of their arrest – 9 June 2015.
“We were doing our jobs as journalists after most of the journalists and activists had already left the capital Sanaa and the other Yemeni governorates as a result of Houthi oppression and their violations against the journalists,” said al Shihab. “Nine of us stayed along with a few other journalists in Yemen to cover the humanitarian situation and events in the different Yemeni governorates.”
Due to power and Internet outages in their area that night, the group gathered in search of accommodation with access to electricity, before eventually checking in to the Bahr al Ahlam Motel in Sanaa, which is where their five-year nightmare begins.
“At midnight, heavily armed elements affiliated with the Houthi militia raided the motel, ordered us not to move and to stay still while they were pointing their weapons at us. They confiscated our cell phones, laptops and whatever we had including our cameras, money and personal documents. They also insulted us and searched all the rooms,” said al Shihab.
The nine men were then herded into military vehicles adorned with “Houthi slogans” and then transported to Al Hasaba police station, where they were separated into two groups: the first group containing the four journalists who remain in prison awaiting execution, and the second containing the five who were eventually freed in October.
This first group was transferred to the Criminal Investigation prison, where they were held and interrogated for two days, before being reunited with their colleagues at Al Hasbara police station.
“We were distributed into different cells and they started interrogating us while torturing us physically and psychologically as we were summoned, blindfolded and handcuffed when we were taken individually to the interrogation room,” said al Shihab.
“They denied us food for several days, and sometimes denied us using bathrooms for 24 hours. We were exposed to different forms of physical and psychological torture while we were being interrogated in addition to being threatened to be placed in an armoury, so that we’d be killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike, a method the Houthis have used to kill our collegaues Abdullah Qabel and Yousif Al Aizari earlier.”
Abuse, torture and threats of execution
Nobody knew of the men's whereabouts. From the perspective of their loved ones, they had gone missing without a trace, presumed dead. Cruelly, the journalists’ Houthi captors denied their requests to contact their families.
Interrogation, abuse, solitary confinement, torture and threats of execution would become an almost daily occurrence for the men at al Thawra pretrial detention centre, the target of a number of Saudi-UAE airstrikes.
“We remember once when the prison director and a number of gunmen belonging to the Houthis broke into our cell. They took us out and beat us with sticks and electrical wires. The prison director was loading his gun and pointing it at us in addition to threatening us with his blade weapon,” said al Shihab.
Al Shihab recalled how Houthi prison guards dragged all nine of the journalists into a hall to listen to a speech given by leader of the Houthi revolution movement Abdul Malik Badreddin al Houthi on 21 September, 2015 to mark the first anniversary of the rebel group’s takeover of Sanaa.
“In this speech, the leader of Houthis incited directly against journalists saying that they were more dangerous than those fighting on the front lines,” remembers al Shihab.
When the speech was over the men were returned to their cells but fearful the guards would be inflamed by their leader’s indictment against journalists.
“It had been two hours since the speech when our colleague Salah al Qaadi, who had been arrested and detained separately to us, heard the sound of the key opening the door to the prison. Then he heard the footsteps of the Houthis as they were getting closer to his cell. They opened the cell door and took him out of it...blindfolded him and tied his hands behind his back.”
“The interrogator slapped, beat and insulted him. He accused him of working for news channels while he continued beating him. Sometimes he charged him with working for international intelligence agencies and sometimes for the (Saudi-led) coalition. A guard then held his gun to Salah’s head and threatened to kill him.”
Al Shihab said the guards then took turns beating him and then spraying ice cold water on his face whenever he passed out from the pain. They tortured him through the night and into the early hours of the morning. He was beaten so badly that he was unable to walk and eat for three days.
“Every prisoner heard the sound of the beating and him screaming out in pain. There was blood streaming out of his nose and mouth and running down his clothes and these signs of torture remained visible on him for a month.”
Ten months into their abduction, all nine detainees were then introduced to a man named Saleem al Qadhi, who was tasked with extracting false confessions from them through torture, a move that propelled the men to launch a hunger strike, one that would last 40 days.
On 24 May, 2016, the men were transferred to the Political Security prison, which “started another journey of disappearance, deprivation and physical and psychological torture,” said al Shihab.
“In this prison we were deprived of clothes, so we used the blankets to cover our bodies; intermittently put in solitary confinements during the five years and prevented from using the bathroom for 24-hour periods sometimes. We got diseases as a result of this negligence, denial of basic health care and the torture we were subjected to.”
Both Hareth Hameed and Tawfik al Mansouri would learn of the death of their respective fathers while held in captivity, and Hassan Anab, news of his mother’s passing. Al Shihab believes all died as a result of the overwhelming grief they suffered over their missing sons.
At the four-year mark of their illegal detention, the Houthi militias dragged the men before a kangaroo court without access to legal representation, where they were convicted on trumped up charges, including “disseminating news and information materials against the Houthi security forces.”
On 11 April 2020, the court determined that time already spent in detention was adequate and ordered the release of al Shihab, Anab, al Qaadi, Balgaith, Tarmoom and al Yousefi, but the execution of Hameed, Emran, al Walidi and al Mansouri.
“Our release was not unconditional since they ordered our release but also ordered to keep us under surveillance for three years and not to practice journalism as well as confiscating our possessions including phones, laptops, cameras and money,” said al Shihab.
However they remained detained for a further six months, until they were released in exchange for military captives caught by Hadi government forces.
“It will take many books and newspapers to describe fully what we had to endure and suffer in these detention facilities,” said al Shihab.
“Only God knows the hardships and suffering of our families in our absence and while they were doing what they could to search for us and visit us. We must work hard to save the lives of our four colleagues who remain in these dark prisons and bring them back to their families and children.”