Yemen seeks to free women in Houthi prisons

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

Yemeni women from a poor family prepare food for cooking as other girls wash clothes in a metal basin in a shack in the Red Sea port city of al-Hodeidah on January 11th. [AFP]

Yemeni women from a poor family prepare food for cooking as other girls wash clothes in a metal basin in a shack in the Red Sea port city of al-Hodeidah on January 11th. [AFP]

Yemen's Ministry of Human Rights says it has been monitoring and investigating the cases of abducted women held in secret prisons by the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah).

The ministry has been working to secure the women's release through the committee for the exchange of prisoners and abductees set up in accordance with the Stockholm Agreement of December 13th, 2018.

In a January 18th statement, the Sanaa-based Yemen Organisation for Combating Human Trafficking said it has information indicating that 120 women remain sequestered in Houthi prisons.

The rights group said it is ready to turn over all the information it has in support of a serious investigation into the case, and called on the Attorney-General, Interior Minister and security leaders in Houthi-controlled areas to investigate.

According to the statement, the Houthis' Department of Criminal Investigation is holding a number of women at its headquarters in Sanaa without charges.

Some of the women had been rounded up arbitrarily during a Houthi crackdown against prostitution, local media outlets reported, and were not released.

The Houthis intend to blackmail their families, the statement said, adding that the families are likely to succumb to their demands for fear of scandal.

The rights group said it had received reports about the disappearance of women in the Sanaa administrative district (Amanat Sanaa) and Sanaa province.

It said it had contacted the security authorities immediately afterwards, and had instructed the women's relatives to report their disappearance.

While in the process of communicating with security authorities, the rights group said, it learned that a number of the women were being held at the Department of Criminal Investigation headquarters in Amanat Sanaa.

It tried to obtain further information from the department, which refused to co-operate and denied it had women in its custody, the statement said.

Arbitrary arrests, disappearances

The Ministry of Human Rights is continuing to pursue the issue through a civil society organisation, said Deputy Minister for Human Rights Nabil Abdul-Hafeez.

"There are 200 abducted women held in Houthi prisons," he told Al-Mashareq, adding that this figure is likely to rise.

When the ministry confirms the names of the abductees, it will ask the committee established by the Stockholm Agreement to add them to the list of prisoners to be released, he said.

The ministry intends to "raise this issue and blatant violation of human rights with international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and organisations concerned with women's affairs", he added.

In its August 2018 report on prisons and detention centres, the National Committee for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations said it had "investigated several incidents of arbitrary arrests and disappearances of women in Sanaa and al-Hodeidah", spokeswoman Ishraq al-Maqtari told Al-Mashareq.

The national committee has field law researchers in Sanaa who conduct investigations and record the testimonies of witnesses and families, al-Maqtari said, adding that families must be aware they need to report such incidents.

Raising public, family awareness

"It is important for us to raise the awareness level among the families," al-Maqtari said, and to "support women and girls who have been subjected to violations to their dignity and sanctity and hold those responsible accountable".

"Unfortunately, women are facing increasing violence in most provinces, particularly in the areas outside the state’s control, where the de facto authority does not respect any human rights standards, especially women's rights," she said.

"We give such violations particular and intensive attention because they are violations of the human rights of women," al-Maqtari added, pointing out that women are frequently marginalised by society, especially in times of war.

The investigation of these cases begins with qualified female researchers affiliated with the committee, who record witness testimonies and complete all documentation for the legal file, al-Maqtari said.

Next comes the investigation process, during which legal analysis and appraisal is performed, she said, and finally the file is referred to the judiciary.

"The crime of kidnapping women for a long period of time without legal justification is not new," said rights activist and lawyer Abdul Rahman Barman, noting that "social stigma and fear of scandal keep such crimes under wraps".

Only a small percentage of such crimes have come to light, he told Al-Mashareq, as most cases have been buried with the families, who are paying large sums of money to have their daughters released from Houthi prisons.

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