Iran-Backed Houthis Quell Popular Opposition Through Forced Disappearances and Other Human Rights Violations

Since the start of the Saudi-UAE-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, the Houthi rebels have quashed Yemenis who oppose them through systematic arrests, forced disappearances, torture, and other human rights violations, accusing them of collaborating with foreign powers.

On September 18, a group of armed Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement of Yemenis also known as Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”), kidnapped political activist Ali al-Sharabi from his home in Sanaa and took him to an unknown location. The Houthi group, backed by Iran due to its shared Shi’a faith, refused to disclose his whereabouts or even admit that they had arrested him.

Three weeks later, on October 5, the Houthis revealed what had happened to al-Sharabi. Weaving their propaganda into a series of bizarre, fabricated accusations against him, they accused him, among other things, of talking to the starving people and “forming a cell to lead a ‘revolution of the hungry.’” They forced him to “admit” to these things in a video released on Al-Masirah, a Houthi-owned channel.

In the video, al-Sharabi appears in a prison uniform, his hair disheveled; his voice and hands tremble as he makes strange gestures. According to one of his relatives who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of his life, al-Sharabi endured “the worst forms of intimidation and psychological torture.” The Houthis broadcast this video to the public for two purposes: to present al-Sharabi as a dissident and to send a powerful message to any starving people planning to protest on October 6 that they might face the same fate.  After the video was broadcast, the Houthis still refused to disclose where they were holding al-Sharabi or allow his family to visit him.

Al-Sharabi, an activist who participated in the revolution against the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in fact, posed little threat to the Houthis and their authority because of his articles critical of the warring parties for their responsibility in the collapse of the economy. Instead, according to activist Nizar al-Qadi (who is also wanted by Houthi forces), the Houthis kidnapped al-Sharabi “because of his Facebook posts.”

The Houthis use violence to systematically maintain their power in the areas of Yemen they control.

The Houthis use violence to systematically maintain their power in the areas of Yemen they control. In October, the Houthi authority mobilized its forces to quell protests by Yemenis against the dire economic situation in which they are now living. The Houthis carried out a random campaign of arrests against dozens of demonstrators, including women, who were protesting the rising prices caused by the decline of the Yemeni rial.

They attacked the protesters with “sticks and electric shock weapons,” according to an anonymous Inside Arabia source. The pro-Houthi Security Information Center’s website described the demonstrators as mercenaries sponsored by the aggression forces to spread rumors and disrupt public peace, referring to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition. To date, more than a month later, there has still been no information released on the status of those who were arrested and detained that day.

A day before the arrests, on October 5, Houthi leader Hussein al-Amalhi threatened protesters with “violence, arrest, and assault.” He used especially coarse and offensive language toward the women who were planning to go out, concluding with: “I’m warning you now. There is no point in crying and complaining later.”

Yemeni activists also shared a video of four armed Houthi men marching toward Sanaa University, openly mocking the suffering of the Yemeni people and making menacing comments toward those planning to protest the economic situation. Toting Kalashnikovs, the men sarcastically inquired: “Where are the hungry? We have been waiting for you for 17 hours,” in a clear warning to the protesters.

Although the Houthis are Yemenis, they have collectively undermined Yemen’s social fabric and overtly rejected peaceful coexistence. They have employed various means to repress any and all opposition, whether through displacement, as with the Jews; fighting, as with the Salafists; or arrests, murders, and house bombings, as with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, the group’s ideological and political rival.

Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s rhetoric shifted from revolutionary to authoritarian and dictatorial when his fighters began to take control of, and subsequently overthrow state institutions.  On September 21, 2014, Houthi militias raided the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, under the pretext of decreasing the price of oil derivatives, something that President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government had initially introduced. Two days later, on September 23, al-Houthi, who is known to his supporters as “the Leader of the Revolution,” delivered a speech marking the “self-proclaimed victory of the people’s will and revolution.” He proclaimed that the “revolution” had been successful in halting the increase of oil prices, calling this the most significant achievement thus far.  He added that there would be a second phase that would focus on instituting major economic reforms.

After three years of harassing citizens, undermining the economy, and causing famine, the group considers any protest to be a form of “collaboration with foreign powers.” Not only has it claimed that U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller pledged to bring about a revolution of the hungry, but it has always staunchly opposed the U.S., its perceived enemy, and blamed it for all the violations that have taken place in Yemen.

From the beginning of the military intervention in Yemen, collaboration with foreign powers has become the most common accusation that Houthis levy against their opponents in order to terrorize and discredit them. Houthi propaganda focuses on the fact that the country is under attack, and they openly question the patriotism of all those who stand opposed to the war or dare to criticize Houthi authority.

Since the group’s founding in 1992, the Houthis have perceived their adversaries or anyone who disagrees with them, as the enemy. They have called their opponents “agents of America, Israel, and Satan’s associates,” which is recycled rhetoric that the government previously used to describe the Houthis during the six wars in Saada.   

The Houthis’ political and religious fascism prompted large-scale arbitrary arrests of marginalized groups like women and young people, accusing them of protesting under the slogan of “the revolution of the hungry.”

The Houthis’ political and religious fascism prompted large-scale arbitrary arrests of marginalized groups like women and young people, accusing them of protesting under the slogan of “the revolution of the hungry.” In a speech on October 4, al-Houthi blamed his opponents for the famine and said “traitors” would be held accountable. He called on his supporters to “make a hunger revolution against our enemy, who transferred the central bank, occupied the wells of our oil wealth, and prevented movement in ports and airports,” referring to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition. Al-Houthi also turned his anger toward traders and accused them of being “behind the country’s economic crisis.”

Houthis feel threatened as public outrage, sparked by economic decline and famine, continues to be directed at parties to the conflict. On October 8, the Sanaa State Security Court tried and sentenced to death both Yahya Hani Mohammad Thabet al-Ariki and Ali Abdelilah Ali al-Hashidi, who were planning a protest, for “collaborating with the aggressor countries,” another reference to the Saudi-UAE-led alliance. The trial linked the fear and paranoia of the Houthi authorities to accusations that the demonstrations were “financed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

The parties to the conflict in Yemen have used famine as a weapon of war and prevented humanitarian access to a number of areas. In 2017, Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights organization, documented at least 26 cases of obstruction of humanitarian access. Houthis were responsible for most of the obstructions in the Saada governorate (23 cases), whereas the Popular Resistance and forces loyal to President Hadi were responsible for three cases in Dhala, Shabwa, and Taiz.

Violence has erupted since the Houthis took control of the Yemeni state.  The group sought to impose its religious and totalitarian authority by force of arms. Houthis have also tried to impose their unilateral brand of cultural revolution by pushing for the demonization of others and labeling disagreement as dissent. The group’s representatives enjoy full control over public institutions, schools, and universities, and they exercise influence over party leaders in Houthi-controlled areas.

Al-Houthi has transformed state prisons in the areas under his control into opposition detention centers. Furthermore, some tribal and military leaders’ homes and government facilities have been turned into secret prisons. After getting rid of their former ally, former President Saleh, the Houthis became the absolute authority.

In 2017, Mwatana documented 69 arbitrary detentions by the Ansar Allah group in the governorates of Saada, Sanaa, Jouf, Al-Bayda, Taiz, Dhamar, and Hodeidah. Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented 16 cases of illegal detention by Houthis, often “to force their relatives to pay money or exchange them with persons detained by hostile forces.” HRW has emphasized that hostage-taking constitutes a serious violation of human rights and is a war crime.

The Houthi rebels are guilty of countless human rights violations against those who oppose them: kidnapping, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, fabricated charges, and blackmail. They defend all arrests and enforced disappearances with accusations of “collaboration” against those detained and disappeared persons, in an effort to discredit them and mobilize Houthi supporters. Lack of accountability has only served to encourage the Houthis as they continue committing such crimes against their own people.