A model and actress held for months by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen has gone on trial in an "unfair" process riddled with "irregularities and abuse", Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday (June 30).
Entisar al-Hammadi was detained on February 20 at a checkpoint in Sanaa, where the Houthis -- who seized control of the city in a 2014 coup -- are enforcing a morality campaign.
Authorities transferred her case to a Houthi-controlled court in June, and she appeared for hearings on June 6 and June 9, HRW said in a statement Wednesday.
Born to an Ethiopian mother and Yemeni father, the 20-year-old had worked as a model for four years and had several thousand followers on social media, where she posted photos of sessions with stylists and designers.
She appeared in two Yemeni TV series: Sad al-Ghareeb and Ghorbat al-Bun.
She is the sole breadwinner for her family, including her father, who is blind, and her brother, who has a disability, her relatives told HRW.
After the Houthis arrested her, while she was travelling by car to a photo shoot, her lawyer, Khaled al-Kamal, said she had been targeted for working in the fashion industry, which the Houthis consider a violation of Islamic culture.
There have been attempts to defame the young woman, with unverified local reports alleging that she was involved in prostitution and drugs, said al-Kamal.
Blindfolded and abused
In a May 7 statement, Amnesty International said al-Hammadi had been interrogated while blindfolded, physically and verbally abused and forced to "confess" to several offences, including drug possession and prostitution.
The Houthis took her to the Criminal Investigation Directorate in Sanaa, where she underwent repeated interrogations while blindfolded, Amnesty said.
She told both the prosecutor and her lawyer that her interrogators forced her to sign a pre-written statement with her fingerprint while blindfolded.
According to HRW, Houthi authorities offered to release her at that time if she would help them entrap their enemies with "sex and drugs".
She refused to do so.
Her lawyer said that security forces woke her up in the middle of the night and drove her to a number of houses, asking her if she used to work there as a "prostitute", Amnesty said in its May 7 report.
The forces transferred her to the women's section of the central prison in Sanaa, where prison authorities verbally abused her and prevented her from contacting her family or a lawyer.
The public prosecutor has prevented her lawyer from accessing her case file despite repeated requests, Amnesty said. On April 27, a gunman approached her lawyer, threatened him and demanded he drop the case.
'Virginity test' averted
The Houthi authorities halted plans for a forced "virginity test" after Amnesty issued a statement condemning their plans, said HRW.
Forced "virginity tests" are a form of sexual violence and amount to torture under international law, Amnesty said in its May 7 statement.
"Virginity testing" is recognised internationally as a violation of human rights, regarded as a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; gender-based violence; and discrimination, HRW said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that "virginity tests" have no scientific validity and that healthcare workers should never conduct them.
“The Houthi de facto authorities have a deplorable track record of arbitrarily detaining people on baseless charges – to silence or punish critics, activists, journalists and members of religious minorities – as well as subjecting them to torture and other forms of ill-treatment," Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said May 7.
"There are no legal grounds to prolong Entisar al-Hammadi's detention and the Houthi de facto authorities must order her immediate release,” she said.
The Houthis have not commented on her case.
Al-Hammadi's lawyer said five other women are detained alongside her based on similar "offences" relating to "indecency", according to HRW.
But the women have refused to publicise their cases, the lawyer said, fearing social stigma and harm to their families' reputations.