Tor­ture rife in Houthi-run Ye­men jails

Shock­ing claims of abuse un­der­score how im­por­tant pris­oner swap deal re­ally was

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION - By Mag­gie Michael

MARIB, Ye­men: Farouk Baakar’s mis­take was tak­ing a selfie.

The Ye­meni medic was on duty at Al-Rashid hos­pi­tal the day when a bleed­ing man was brought into the emer­gency room with gun­shot wounds and signs of tor­ture.

He had been dumped on the side of a high­way af­ter be­ing held in a prison run by the Houthi mili­ti­a­men who control north­ern Ye­men.

He’d been whipped across the back and hung by his wrists for days.

Baakar spent hours re­mov­ing bul­lets and re­pair­ing rup­tured in­tes­tine. He tended to the pa­tient’s re­cov­ery for 80 days and, at the end, agreed to pose for a selfie with him.

Weeks later, Houthi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials grabbed the man again.

They searched his phone and found the photo.

Mili­ti­a­men stormed the hos­pi­tal in the port city of Hodeida, blind­folded Baakar and hus­tled him away in a pickup truck.

Be­cause he’d given med­i­cal help to an en­emy of the Houthis, they told him, he was now their en­emy too.

Af­ter his ar­rest in mid-2016, he spent 18 months im­pris­oned.

Dur­ing that time, he says, they burned him, beat him and chained him to the ceil­ing by his wrists.

Baakar and his pa­tient are among thou­sands im­pris­oned by Houthi rebels dur­ing Ye­men’s four-year civil war. Many of them, an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion found, suf­fered ex­treme tor­ture – smashed in their faces with ba­tons, hung by their wrists or gen­i­tals for weeks at a time or scorched with acid.

The AP spoke with 23 peo­ple who said they sur­vived or wit­nessed tor­ture in Houthi de­ten­tion sites, as well as with eight rel­a­tives of de­tainees, five lawyers and rights ac­tivists, and three se­cu­rity of­fi­cers in­volved in pre­vi­ous pris­oner swaps who said they saw tor­ture marks on in­mates.

These ac­counts un­der­score the sig­nif­i­cance of an agree­ment on a pris­oner swap reached in Swe­den Thurs­day at the start of U.N.-spon­sored peace talks be­tween Ye­men’s Houthi rebels and the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment, backed by Saudi Ara­bia and the United States.

As a trust-build­ing mea­sure, the two sides agreed to re­lease sev­eral thou­sand pris­on­ers, though de­tails still must be ham­mered out.

But while the gov­ern­ment would re­lease cap­tured Houthi fighters, the rebels would largely free civil­ians who, like Baakar, were im­pris­oned dur­ing sweeps aimed at sup­press­ing op­po­si­tion and ob­tain­ing cap­tives who could be traded for ran­som or ex­changed for Houthi fighters held by the other side.

The Ab­ductees’ Moth­ers Union, an as­so­ci­a­tion of fe­male rel­a­tives of de­tainees jailed by Houthis, has doc­u­mented more than 18,000 de­tainees in the last four years, in­clud­ing 1,000 cases of tor­ture in a net­work of se­cret pris­ons, ac­cord­ing to Sabah Mo­hammed, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the group in the city of Marib.

The moth­ers’ group says at least 126 pris­on­ers have died from tor­ture since the Houthis took over the cap­i­tal, Sanaa, in late 2014.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional says that “hor­rific hu­man rights abuses, as well as war crimes, are be­ing com­mit­ted through­out the coun­try by all par­ties to the con­flict.”

But in­ter­na­tional out­rage over the blood­shed in Ye­men has largely fo­cused on abuses car­ried out by the U.S.-backed and Saudi-led mil­i­tary coali­tion fight­ing on the side of the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment.

The AP has ex­posed tor­ture at se­cret pris­ons run by the United Arab Emi­rates and their Ye­meni al­lies and has doc­u­mented the deaths of civil­ians from strikes by drones in the United States’ cam­paign against AlQaeda’s branch in Ye­men.

Abuses by the Houthis have been less vis­i­ble to the out­side world.

Houthi lead­ers pre­vi­ously have de­nied they en­gage in tor­ture, though they did not re­spond to re­peated AP re­quests for com­ment in re­cent weeks. The Houthis’ Hu­man Rights Min­istry said in late 2016 that “there is no pol­icy or sys­tem­atic use of tor­ture on pris­on­ers.”

But within the move­ment, a mod­er­ate fac­tion has ac­knowl­edged abuses and sought to end them.

Yahia al-Houthi, the brother of the group’s top leader, set up a com­mit­tee in 2016 to in­ves­ti­gate re­ports of tor­ture. It helped free 13,500 pris­on­ers in its first three months.

The com­mit­tee sent a video re­port to the leader, Ab­del-Malek al-Houthi, show­ing scenes of over­crowded prison wards along with tes­ti­mony from se­nior Houthis on the com­mit­tee who said they saw signs of tor­ture.

The video was not made pub­lic, but the AP ob­tained a copy.

“What we saw would make you cry tears of blood,” one com­mit­tee mem­ber says in the video.

Ab­del-Malek never re­sponded to the video. In­stead, hard-line se­cu­rity of­fi­cials shut down the com­mit­tee and briefly de­tained two of its mem­bers. The video re­port echoes the ac­counts vic­tims gave to the AP.

Baakar, the medic, said that af­ter his ar­rest, the mili­ti­a­men hung him from the ceil­ing, stripped him, whipped his naked body, then pulled out his nails and tore out his hair.

He fainted. Once they brought plas­tic bot­tles and with a lighter melted the plas­tic over his head, back, and be­tween his thighs.

Even­tu­ally, Baakar was taken to Hodeida cas­tle, a 500-year-old Ot­toman-era fortress.

In a filthy base­ment known as the “Pres­sure Room,” he was hung by his wrists for 50 days, un­til his cap­tors thought he was dead. They cut him down, and when they real­ized he was still alive, al­lowed other pris­on­ers to feed and clean him.

As he re­cov­ered, other tor­tured de­tainees asked for his help.

He tried to treat their in­juries, even car­ry­ing out sim­ple surg­eries, with­out anes­the­sia and us­ing elec­tric wires, the only tool he had.

Baakar, who was freed in De­cem­ber 2017 af­ter his fam­ily paid the equiv­a­lent of $8,000, re­called help­ing a man who’d been hung by his pe­nis and testes. An­other man had been badly burned when the Houthis poured acid on his back, melt­ing his skin and nearly seal­ing his but­tocks. Baakar used wires to make an open­ing and, with his fin­gers, re­moved the stool.

“When I asked Houthi guards for help, say­ing the man is dy­ing, their only an­swer was: ‘Let him die.’”

One of the pris­on­ers rests af­ter tak­ing a walk at the Marib Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal in Ye­men.

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