Human Rights

International community calls on Houthis to reverse death sentences against journalists

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

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These four journalists were sentenced to death by the Houthi-run Specialised Criminal Court in Sanaa, in a move that has sparked international outcry. [Photo courtesy of Yemeni Journalists Syndicate]

International and Yemeni press freedom organisations have called on the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) to drop the death sentences issued against four journalists earlier this month.

A Houthi-run court in Sanaa on April 11th ordered the execution of Abdel-Khaleq Ahmed Abdo Omran, Akram Saleh al-Walidi, Harith Hamid and Tawfiq al-Mansouri, after convicting them of "treason and espionage".

Yemen's legitimate government has made it clear that the court issuing the sentences has no legal authority, as it is dominated by the Houthis, who seized control of Sanaa during a 2014 coup.

The Houthis accuse the journalists of "aiding the [Arab] coalition" and "spreading news and rumours" against the Houthis, the journalists' lawyer Abdel Majeed Farea Sabra told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last May.

The four were detained, along with five other journalists, while working out of a hotel in Sanaa in July 2015.

The court also issued prison sentences that were commuted to time spent in prison to six other journalists in Houthi custody: Hesham Tarmoum, Hisham al-Yousifi, Essam Balghaith, Haitham al-Shihab, Hassan Anaab and Salah al-Kaedi.

But the court has refused to release the journalists who have already served their time, according to one of the lawyers representing them.

Widespread condemnation

The CPJ, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Federation of Arab Journalists, Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS), National Organisation of Yemeni Reporters (SADA) and Amnesty International have condemned the move.

"At a time when Yemen needs accurate news and information more than ever, this sentence is truly dismaying," said CPJ senior researcher for the Middle East and North Africa Justin Shilad.

"We urge the Houthis to immediately reverse this decision and release all journalists in their custody."

Yemeni and US officials also slammed the Houthis' decision, with US Ambassador to Yemen Christopher Henzel denouncing the death sentences in an April 12th social media post.

"We join the international community in calling for the immediate release of the journalists," he said.

The ruling is "an escalatory move aimed at scuttling the efforts made by the UN envoy toward the exchange of detainees, prisoners and forcibly disappeared persons", Yemen's Ministry of Human Rights said in a statement.

SADA said the sentence was "issued by a dishonest judge and an invalid court".

In a joint letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on April 15th, the YJS and IFJ called on the international body to "stand up for journalists".

Amnesty International urged the Houthis "to immediately quash these death sentences, drop all pending charges and release all 10 journalists".

Silencing independent voices

Yemen's Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez told Al-Mashareq the trials were "lacking in objectivity, and another crime against journalists".

The Yemeni government has called on the UN, the Human Rights Council and others "to intervene swiftly to stop the Houthis' wantonness and secure the immediate release of journalists and all detainees", he said.

This is called for under the terms of the Stockholm Agreement, and is in line with international efforts aimed at securing the release of detainees during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he added.

The four journalists have been sentenced to death "for no crime", he said, noting that there is no longer freedom of expression in the areas under Houthi control because the militia "has silenced all voices".

The Houthis issued the ruling against the journalists "to justify their arrest and torture, and also to terrorise other people of opinion", journalist and political analyst Waddah al-Jalil told Al-Mashareq.

"The Houthis target journalists and people of opinion in general because it views them as being a bigger threat than fighters on the frontlines," YJS member Nabil al-Osaidi told Al-Mashareq.

Since the coup of 2014, the Houthis have sought to "muzzle critics and pursue, detain, kidnap and physically and psychologically torture journalists to silence the voice of the truth and eyewitnesses to their crimes", he added.

Press freedom violations

The YJS recorded 31 cases of press freedom violations in Yemen during the first three months of the year, the syndicate announced April 6th.

"The journalism work environment is fraught with danger in all regions of Yemen and journalists lack the tools and guarantees of protection and effective support," it said.

The Houthis' ruling comes "during one of the most difficult times the modern world has ever faced, the COVID-19 pandemic," the YJS and IFJ said in their joint statement.

"The world must live up to the responsibility it has to secure the release of journalists from Houthi prisons and other prisons," al-Osaidi said, given the health risks they are facing and concerns over the spread of coronavirus.

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