Prison Break

Fighters loyal to Yemen's government ride on the back of a truck on a road leading to the frontline of fighting against Houthi militiamen in the southwestern city of Taiz. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

The city of Taiz in Yemen has turned into a veritable prison for its residents

BY Nasser Al Sakkaf

After Houthi rebels had ousted the government in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last year, they set their sights on the provinces, confident of victory. But the rebels have faced stubborn resistance in many of these regions, like Taiz in the south, and frustation has set in. Employing drastic measures to bend local Yemenis to their will, the use of prisons exemplifies how dire the situation is.

Since April, when the Houthis first took over some neighborhoods of Taiz, the capital of the province with the same name, the rebels have tightened their grip on the residents who remain. Most residents of the city fled for the rural areas, but those who stayed continue to experience water shortages as the Houthis, who control the roads that lead into the city, sometimes block water trucks from entering.

After the Houthi rebels first seized control of parts of the city, they quickly went to work to identify their opponents. Some were members of the Islah Party, who were placed in detention centers. But with the Houthis making little progress in taking over the rest of Taiz, residents say that over the past two months the rebels have been regarding anyone who gives them any reason, real or imagined, as suspicious.

A photograph landed Mohammed Al Adimi, 31, inside one of the Houthi’s detention centers after he left his cousin’s house in the Al Camp area of central Taiz to drive to Sanaa, 240 kilometers (150 miles) to the north on Oct. 18. When he arrived at a Houthi checkpoint near the Al Qasr roundabout at Taiz’s city limits, the Houthis stopped him, just as they had on previous trips.

“I thought that they will do their regular frisking, but this time the Houthis asked me to give them my phone,” Al Adimi said. “Then they found photos of the resistance in my phone, and this was enough reason to detain me.” Al Adimi said that the photographs of dead resistance fighters had been shared within one of his groups on WhatsApp.

He said he made a mistake in leaving his cousin’s house at 3 a.m., when the streets were deserted. “I wanted to arrive in Sanaa early, so I left my house early,” he said. “The Houthis accused me of being a spy for the resistance because I was driving in the streets at 3 in the morning and I had photos of resistance’s martyrs.”

The Houthis put Al Adimi in a room of the Houthi fighters’ living quarters near the roundabout, and when morning came, took him in his car to Al Saleh’s residential city in the Al Hawban area north of Taiz. The residential city, which is still under construction, consists of several buildings so far, all uninhabited until the Houthis converted them into detention centers.

“When I arrived at the gate of Al Saleh’s city, two Houthi members pulled me from my car and started to insult me and call me a spy,” Al Adimi said. “Then they put me in a room on the third floor, and they did not give me food for a full day.”

The Houthis started feeding Al Adimi on the second day, but one member who gave his name as Abu Gibreel began to beat him three times a day, punching him in the back. That silenced Al Adimi’s questions as to why he was being detained. But on the third day, he tried again. “I asked Abu Gibreel, the Houthi who hit me, about my situation,” he said. “Then after a long argument, I found out that I was inside the section designed for the resistance’s members.”

The prison complex consisted of four buildings, each designated for a certain group. One contained those who fought against the Houthis, while another was for noncombatant members of the resistance. A third section held anti-Houthi political activists and journalists, and the last one was for the suspected supporters of the resistance.

On the fourth day of his captivity, the Houthis moved Al Adimi to the section holding the resistance’s supporters. There, the beatings stopped, and the Houthis also allowed Al Adimi to contact his father in Sanaa.

His father, Abdulwahed, arrived in Taiz two days later. “When my father asked the Houthis about the charges against me, they told him that I am spy with the resistance,” Al Adimi said. “But my father did not believe them.” Next, one of the Houthis demanded 400,000 Yemeni rial ($1,860) to release Al Adimi. After some argument, his father gave the Houthi 250,000 rial. The rebels released Al Adimi and returned his phone and car.

Tawfeeq Al Shoaibi, a lawyer in Taiz and head of the Taiz chapter for the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedom, also known as HOOD, said the exact number of detainees in Taiz was unknown because the Houthis denied HOOD entry into the detention centers. But he estimated that dozens of the city’s residents have been arrested.

“We tried more than once to enter Al Saleh’s city and visit the prisoners, but the Houthis did not let us visit the prisoners,” he said. “They tried to detain even the lawyers who went there.”

Al Shoaibi criticized the Houthis for not allowing detainees access to lawyers or civil rights activists, but he said the rebels were acting with impunity because of an absence of government authority in Taiz. He accused the Houthis of seizing people in order to get detainees’ relatives to pay for their release. “According to the interviews with the freed people, we found that most of them paid ransom to the Houthis,” he said.

As the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni army escalate their attacks on the rebels in Taiz, having launched an offensive on Nov. 18, Al Shoaibi said he feared that the Houthis will use the detainees as “human shields” against airstrikes.

A Houthi supporter in Taiz, Samer Al Junaid, defended the arrests as a necessary tool in the fight against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the militant group known as Daesh. “For this reason, the Houthis have the right to detain anyone for questioning, as we live in a time of war,” he told Newsweek Middle East.

Al Junaid said the Houthis had the legal authority to question anyone they wanted because there is no other government in Taiz.

“It is true that the Ansarullah can hold any suspect,” he said, referring to the party of the Houthis. “But they do not torture him, and they do not take ransom from the detainees. If there are some people who take money from the detainees or their relatives, these people take it secretly and they are not members of Ansarullah.”

Whether the expanded detainments will help the Houthis take control of the entire city is uncertain, but they clearly have a chilling effect on residents. After Al Adimi was released, he immediately went back to his village in Taiz’s Al Shimayateen district. He has not left it since, even it meant discontinuing his work as a rice distributor, because he fears the Houthis will seize him again.

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