A woman and two men were forcibly disappeared, ill-treated and given a patently unfair trial before being sentenced to death by a court in the Huthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sana’a for allegedly aiding an enemy country, Amnesty International’s research has found. The organisation said the case was the latest example of the Huthis using the judiciary to settle political scores amid the ongoing armed conflict with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition supporting the UN-recognised government of Yemen. On 30 January, the Huthi-aligned Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Sana’a, which handles ‘terrorism’ and ‘state security’ cases, sentenced Asmaa al-Omeissy, Saeed al-Ruwaished, and Ahmed Bawazeer to death. A fourth defendant, Asmaa’s father Matir al-Omeissy, was handed a 15-year prison sentence after being convicted of an ‘indecent act’ charge related to the case.
“As Yemen’s armed conflict rages on, the grossly unfair trial of Asmaa al-Omeissy and the three other defendants is part of a wider pattern of the Huthis using the judiciary to settle political scores. The trial followed a catalogue of grave violations and crimes under international law, some of which may also amount to war crimes. The defendants initially were subjected to enforced disappearance, cut off from the outside world, and secretly moved from one facility to the other. They were held in squalor in pre-trial detention for months, extorted for money, subjected to continuous humiliation and extreme physical abuse, and denied basic rights including legal counsel and family visits,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
Three of the defendants had been visiting from the southern part of the country when they were arrested at a checkpoint in Sana’a in October 2016. Things took a turn for the worse after authorities started interrogating them over accusations that Asmaa al-Omeissy’s husband is linked to al-Qa’ida. Two of the defendants, speaking from areas of Yemen outside Huthi control, told Amnesty International they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment at all the facilities where they were held since their arrest, including while in the custody of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). They were denied contact with anyone for a period ranging between two and three months.
Matir al-Omeissy likened the interrogation process to “a psychological war” where police “were accusing us of all sorts of things, of being a terrorist group and a sleeper cell in the capital Sana’a.”
The three men were kept at part of the CID known as al-Makhfi, or ‘the hidden prison,’ for nearly eight months. Asmaa al-Omeissy was held there for two months before she was moved to the Central Prison. Family members who went looking for one of the detainees at several prisons, including the CID, were told he was not there. The family of another detainee, deprived of any news about him for three months, held a wake for him, believing he had died.
Asmaa al-Omeissy’s 50-year-old father Matir, who was in detention with her at the CID, told Amnesty International how they were tortured: “They would bring the other two [Saeed al-Ruwaished and Ahmed Bawazeer] to our room blindfolded and handcuffed and beat them in front of us, making us watch. They would beat them, asking them to confess as they kept denying any wrongdoing. We [Asmaa and Matir al-Omeissy] would remain silent in fear of being shot. … Only God knows the torment we were subjected to.”
Saeed al-Ruwaished, 34, said: “They wouldn’t let us sleep, they would keep on beating us. … They would interrogate me from three in the afternoon until four or five in the afternoon the following day. This would go on for several days in a row. Every interrogation involved torture and beating. They would ask ‘Are you with the Arab coalition? Are you recruiting fighters for the coalition? Are you part of an espionage network?’”
Saeed al-Ruwaished described to Amnesty International how he and Ahmed Bawazeer were chained by their wrists and were hung from the ceiling for hours at a time, sometimes overnight. They were kicked and punched, including in their genitals, hit with shoes, threatened with rape, and verbally abused. Amnesty International viewed medical records confirming at least one of the acute injuries resulting from the beatings.
Asmaa al-Omeissy was also subjected to beatings, including being punched and beaten with a cane by a policewoman, her father told Amnesty International. When the defendants’ families were allowed to contact them, they were requested to send money to cover their prison expenses, including food. However, Huthi prison guards and middle-men repeatedly extorted the detainees, pocketing half of the money sent by their families. Family members were prevented from bringing items such as blankets and clothes. One defendant remained in the same underwear for eight months.
Ahmed Bawazeer fell seriously ill with liver disease, despite being healthy and fit before his arrest. After eight months, his family finally got up the courage to travel from the south to visit him, and forked out a small fortune for his treatment and medication, including even having to pay for the car that took him to the hospital, where he received medical care flanked by up to six guards.
Ahmed Bawazeer and Matir al-Omeissy, who also fell ill in detention, were ultimately released on bail in June 2017 on medical grounds. Saeed al-Ruwaished paid a large amount of money in bail to secure his release the same month and all three men subsequently travelled to areas of Yemen outside Huthi control.
The 30 January verdict against the three men was handed down in absentia. Asmaa al-Omeissy, who remains in custody, was the only defendant present at the court. The 22-year-old mother of two also faces a separate sentence of 100 lashes on an “indecent act” charge for travelling in a car with the male defendants, her father’s 15-year sentence is for allegedly facilitating that. A lawyer has filed an appeal request on Asmaa al-Omeissy’s behalf.
“It is not the first time that Yemen’s Specialised Criminal Court, which falls short of necessary guarantees of independence and due process, has handed out death sentences after grossly unfair trials. We consistently oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel punishment. Sentencing anyone to death after such deeply flawed proceedings is a clear violation of international law. These sentences must be quashed without delay,” said Colm O’Gorman.
Activists and family members are concerned about Asmaa al-Omeissy’s conditions in jail. The Geneva-based SAM Organisation for Rights and Liberties has reported that hundreds of female detainees in Huthi prisons are subjected to torture and humiliation, including forced labour.
Yemeni activists and lawyers say they believe this is the first death sentence against a woman in a ‘state security’ case. The charges include “aiding a foreign country in a state of war with Yemen,” a reference to the United Arab Emirates, part of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition involved in the conflict.
Amnesty International interviewed two of the defendants, as well as lawyers and human rights advocates following the case. The organisation also reviewed prosecution documents and medical records.
In January, Hamid Haydara, who belongs to Yemen’s Baha’i minority community, was sentenced to death by the SCC in Sana’a following a grossly unfair trial. He is a prisoner of conscience who has been tried on account of his conscientiously held beliefs and peaceful activities as a member of the Baha’i community.
The Huthi armed group has controlled large parts of Yemen since late 2014. In conjunction with forces loyal to the late, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh and state security and intelligence agencies, the group has carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions of its opponents, as well as enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. The Huthis’ clampdown intensified after the start of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s aerial bombardment campaign in March 2015.
As the de facto government in control of the capital city and other parts of the country and its institutions, the Huthis should respect the human rights of individuals under their power. All parties to a conflict, including non-state armed groups, must observe the rules of international humanitarian law.