Crime & Justice

Houthis exploit coronavirus crisis to collect funds

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

Women shop for hand and surface disinfectants at a market in Houthi-held Sanaa on April 2nd amid concerns about the novel coronavirus pandemic. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Women shop for hand and surface disinfectants at a market in Houthi-held Sanaa on April 2nd amid concerns about the novel coronavirus pandemic. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

The Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) have been imposing levies on Yemeni citizens and merchants, claiming the money they collect is going to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Yemeni officials and observers said.

But many believe the Houthis are using these funds to finance the war.

In an interview with a local media outlet, Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar al-Eryani said the Houthis are exploiting the fight against coronavirus to engage in extortion to serve their own purposes.

According to some pro-Houthi media outlets, he said, the militia has called on its supporters to go to the battlefronts and fight, rather than die in their homes "like camels".

"This call exploits the fear among civilians of the possibility of the spread of the virus to mobilise them for the [battlefronts]," he said, noting that this in turn serves the agenda of their key supporter and enabler, Iran.

The Houthi-controlled Central Bank of Yemen in Sanaa on April 2nd announced, through pro-Houthi media outlets, that the Central Bank and CAC Bank and their branches would receive donations for the fight against coronavirus.

The Houthis have meanwhile imposed tributes and fees on shops and other establishments under the pretext of raising funds for the virus response, and have been forcing merchants to donate money to this cause.

Yemen reported its first case of coronavirus Friday (April 10th) in the southern province of Hadramaut, AFP reported.

"The case is in isolation and treatment, all known contacts are being traced and quarantined," the World Health Organization said on Twitter.

"WHO is working closely with (the health ministry) to ensure further rapid containment measures are taken."

'Arbitrary measures'

The Houthis are "using the coronavirus outbreak crisis to impose arbitrary measures such as the imposition of fines and stepped up collection of dues", Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez told Al-Mashareq.

They are doing this "to finance their war and enrich their leaders", he said, "without implementing any real measures to stop the spread of the pandemic".

"Houthi militiamen are conducting an inspection campaign to monitor the implementation of the measures by markets and shops, and have forced shop owners to implement them in order to impose financial penalties," he said.

Sanaa restaurant owner Mohamed Saeed told Al-Mashareq that armed Houthi militiamen had asked him to "provide them with the number of workers in the restaurant".

They then "imposed a fee of 3,000 Yemeni riyals ($12) per worker to draw blood samples to test for infection with the virus", he said.

"Four days have gone by and I have no idea who took the blood samples or what the test results are," Saeed said, adding that he does not even know if the tests were done, but could not refuse the militants' demands.

Forcing merchants to donate

"The Houthis forced major merchants to make donations, under the pretext of supporting the social effort aimed at fighting the outbreak of the pandemic," economist Abdul Aziz Thabet told Al-Mashareq.

The militia also "conducted inspection campaigns to monitor adherence to the preventive measures by markets and shops", Thabet said.

Most shops paid fines for allegedly not fully adhering to the preventive measures or meeting the health requirements for workers and customers, he said.

"There is high demand in the market for cleaning material and masks, which drove up prices multifold and caused them to vanish from the market," he said.

He accused the Houthis of negligence in this regard, noting that instead of preventing price gouging and ensuring there were adequate supplies of essential items, they focused all their attention on imposing fees and fines.

Spreading misinformation

Political analyst Faisal Ahmed slammed Houthi media outlets that called on the militia's supporters to head to the battlefronts under the false assurance that they would thus avoid the risk of infection as there is "no mixing there".

"The Houthis are not concerned about the lives and health of civilians as much as they are concerned about their own interests, serving their leaders and implementing the Iranian agenda in Yemen," he told Al-Mashareq.

Ahmed said that since the Houthis banned family visits to Sanaa's central prison, they have imposed fees of up to 2,000 riyals ($8) on families for the delivery of meals to the inmates.

He expressed concern that the Houthis would send prisoners released from the central prison in Sanaa and other prisons they control "to the fronts" under the pretext of preventing the spread of the virus.

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