Ex-captives describe torture by Houthi militias
Farouk Baakar was on duty as a medic at Al-Rashid hospital the day a bleeding man was brought into the emergency room with gunshot wounds and signs of torture. He had been whipped across the back and hung by his wrists for days.
The patient, Baakar learned, had been left for dead by the side of a highway after being held captive in a prison run by the Houthis who control northern Yemen.
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.
Then they came for Baakar. Militiamen stormed the hospital, blindfolded Baakar and hustled him away in a pickup truck. Because he had given medical help to an enemy of the Houthis, they told him, he was now their enemy too. He spent 18 months in prisons within the expanse of Yemen controlled by the Houthis. He says they burned him, beat him and chained him to the ceiling by his wrists for 50 days until they thought he was dead.
Baakar and his patient are among thousands of people who have been imprisoned by the Houthi militia during the four years of Yemen’s grinding civil war.
Many of them, an Associated Press investigation has found, have suffered extreme torture — being smashed in their faces with batons, hung from chains by their wrists or genitals for weeks at a time, and 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 prisoner swaps who said they saw marks of torture on inmates.
The Abductees’ Mothers Union, an association of female relatives of detainees jailed by the 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.
Mosques, ancient castles, colleges, clubs and other civilian structures have served as first-stop facilities for thousands of detainees before they are moved into official prisons, according to testimonies of victims and human rights agencies. The mother’s group counted 30 so-called black sites in Sanaa alone.
Houthi leaders previously have denied that they engage in torture, though they did not respond to repeated AP requests for comment in recent weeks.
Abuses by the Houthis have been less visible to the outside world as the rebels worked to eliminate dissent and silence journalists.
From the capital, Sanaa, the Houthis rule over around 70 percent of Yemen’s 29 million people.
One of the former prisoners of the Houthis who spoke to the AP was a school teacher from the northern city of Dhamar who, after his release, fled to Marib.
He asked that he be identified only by his first name, Hussein, because he fears for the safety of family members still in rebel territory.
He was held for four months and 22 days in an underground cell. He was blindfolded the entire time, he said, but kept count of the days by following the calls to prayer. Throughout his confinement, he said, his jailers beat him with iron rods and told him he was going to die.
“Prepare your will,” he said they told him.
The selfie of Baakar with an escaped prisoner was all the evidence seven Houthi militiamen needed of the medic’s disloyalty when they came for him at Al-Rashid hospital.
“How much money did they give you to treat the enemies?” one militiaman screamed in his face.
Baakar says they slapped and kicked him, beat him with batons on his face, teeth and body, and taunted him: “You will be killed because you are a traitor.”
The militiamen took him to a location he could not identify, stood him on a wooden box, chained his wrists to the ceiling and then kicked the box out from under his feet.
He says they stripped him and whipped his naked body, then pulled out his nails and tore out his hair. He fainted.
“It was so painful, especially when they come the next days and press on the bruises with their fingers,” he said.
The Houthis became more and more creative, Baakar said. They once 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, the 500-year-old fortress on the Red Sea coast.
He said guards pushed him into a filthy basement known as the “Pressure Room” and hung him by his wrists. In a dark corner, he could see shapes of dead cats and even torn fingers.
When he grew thirsty, he said, torturers splashed water on his face and he licked off the drops.