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Shadow of execution: How Yemen families fear death sentences from illegal court

Yemeni travellers are becoming caught in a legal turf war between Houthi rebels and the government
Houthi fighters at a checkpoint in Sanaa in April 2016; families say their relatives have been abducted at guard posts and now face serious charges (Reuters)

TAIZ, Yemen – Rafat cannot sleep. When he does, he has nightmares about Akram, his son, who has been imprisoned by the Houthi rebels since November 2016.

“His only crime was that he had some anti-Houthi messages and photos in his phone," says his father. (Rafat and Akram’s real names have been withheld for their own safety.)

Akram, 22, an unemployed food distributor, was abducted in November 2016 while he was looking for work, heading to Sanaa from Aden.

This is a Houthi court and we cannot defend our sons

- Rafat, father

The Houthis, who control much of Yemen including the capital Sanaa, inspect the mobile phones of anyone travelling from pro-government provinces to rebel-controlled areas.

In Akram’s case it led to accusations that he was working with the Saudi-led coalition; many charged with similar offences have been sentenced to death, although none has yet been executed at time of writing.

"This is a Houthi court and we cannot defend our sons,” Rafat said. “If I try to defend my son, the Houthis will arrest me as well as him, and then only the women will be able to go and defend their sons."

Court in a trap

Yemen’s legal system, like the rest of the country, is wrecked: whichever armed group – be they backed by militia, the government or rebels - runs a city or region usually runs its state institutions such as the judiciary.

The Specialised Criminal Court of First Instance in Sanaa, which deals with crimes including terrorism, is operated by the Houthi rebels.

Police outside a court of appeal in Sanaa (Reuters)
During the past two years it has sentenced people such as Akram, who have been stopped and accused of working with the Saudi-led coalition, al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS). 

On Monday the Supreme Judicial Council, based in Aden and Yemen’s highest judicial authority, ordered that the court in Sanaa shut down. It said its functions would be transferred to a new court and prosecutor's office in government-run Marib province, thereby cancelling any of its judgments immediately.

The Houthis in Sanaa ignored the decision.

Ahmed, a judge in Sanaa, speaking anonymously on grounds of safety, told MEE: "We work in Sanaa, which is under the control of Ansar Allah [the Houthis] and only obey the decisions of Ansar Allah."

He said that the decision simply repeated a previous announcement from the exiled government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to shut courts in Sanaa.

"The traitor Hadi and his government are wanted for trial in Sanaa and one day we will put them on trial," said Ahmed. The courts and prosecutors in Sanaa would continue to work as normal, he added.

On the same day as Aden shut down the court, the Sanaa judiciary sentenced three abductees to death for working for the Saudi intelligence and fighting with al-Qaeda against the Houthi Popular Committees.

On 24 April, four men were sentenced to death for being mercenaries of the "aggression", as the Saudi-led coalition is known, passing on positions and movements of Houthi military forces to the kingdom’s intelligence services, according to the Houthi-run Saba news agency.

Another four, who received the same sentence, were accused of working for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (IS). And in January 2018 four abductees, including a woman, were sentenced to death for working with the Saudi-led coalition.

'Outlaw' justice?

The court in Sanaa has sometimes revoked its earlier decisions. In April 2017 journalist Yahia al-Jubaihi, who like Akram was detained in November 2016, was sentenced to death. Jubaihi was eventually freed amid international condemnation at the verdict.

Rafat fears that recent events, including the death of the Houthi leader Saleh al-Sammad, has distracted from the prisoners' plight. “If we do not hear comments from organisations soon then the abductees might be killed.”

He has reasons to fear. During last summer the Houthis held public executions in Sanaa for two men who were found guilty of raping and murdering children.

Muhammad al-Maghribi and Hussein al-Saket were each shot in the back with automatic fire. Maghribi was whipped before he was killed. Saket’s body was hoisted into the air by crane after he had been shot for the gathered crowd of thousands to see.

Both supporters and opponents of the Houthis welcomed the executions and also the speed at which the verdicts were handed down. Abdul Hamid Ahsan, a pharmacist, said at the time: “This was a humanitarian issue and people from different sides welcomed it as there is seen to be nothing wrong with such executions.”

Hussein al-Saket hangs from a crane after being executed in Sanaa in August 2017 (AFP)
But while the charges for Maghribi and Saket were very different to those facing Akram, the sentences in each are the same: death.

The Abductees' Mothers Association (AMA) was founded in 2015, when the Houthis abducted thousands of people, to support families and especially mothers.

It condemned the judgments against abductees and said that the court is an “outlaw court where abductees are subjecting to illegal trials with false accusations".

The association said that the Houthis needed to take full responsibility for the safety of the abductees.

There are an estimated 14,000 detainees in Houthi prisons, according to the Yemeni government’s ministry of human rights, with at least 111 tortured to death. Some fear that the number is higher.

Money can help - sometimes

One common charge against Houthi arrests and death sentences is that they are a tool, used by the rebels to blackmail the families of prisoners. But AMA said that while payments could sometimes secure release, it did not work when it came to serious crimes such as murder. 

Abdul Ellah, 33, was arrested in the al-Hawban area of Taiz in May 2016. The Houthis alleged he worked with Saudi intelligence because photos of anti-Houthi leaders were found on his phone.

The Abductees' Mothers Association protest against detentions (AMA)
Initially he spent three months at the large al-Saleh City prison in al-Hawban, before being transferred to Sanaa Central Prison.

He said: "After more than seven months, a mediator between the abductees and the Houthis told my brother that he wanted a million Yemeni rials [around $4,000] to give it to the Houthis to free me."

The family were only able to raise the money by selling their jewellery and eventually Ellah was released.

"Money can be paid to secure release, but only for those who do not have real accusations against them like me can be freed. I do not think that abductees can pay money after the judgments against them have been issued."

Abdurrahman Barman, a Yemeni lawyer forced to flee the country after the Houthis destroyed his home in al-Dhale, is a member of the National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations to Human Rights.

We live under the control of militia and there is no real government, either in the Houthi areas or the pro-government areas. So each court is biased to the controlling militia

- Abdurrahman Barman, Yemeni lawyer

He has said that the court in Sanaa is "the court of militia" and that it is not illegal. "We live under the control of militia and there is no real government, either in the Houthi areas or the pro-government areas. So each court is biased to the controlling militia."

Sami al-Qadasi, a lawyer based in Taiz, said that the judges of the court in Sanaa dare not hand down independent verdicts which might upset the Houthis.

He condemned the government and international groups for not doing more. "Death penalties have to be stopped everywhere in the country, because the courts are not independent and militias are using courts for political purposes."

MEE contacted the Yemeni government for comment. It had yet to respond at time of publication.

Will the Houthis back down?

Ahmed, the judge in Sanaa, denied accusations of bias and said that the court operated according to Yemeni law. "I have been working in this court for more than 15 years and we are working now as we always have in the past few years, as the law is the real judge."

He said that there were more political cases now than before the war erupted in 2015, but that Yemeni law was still used as the basis for all judgments in Houthi-backed courts, including the death sentence, and that defendants still had the right to appeal against verdicts.

“In the second chapter of Yemeni law, article 125, it says: ‘Anyone who commits an act that affects the independence of the republic or its unity or the safety of its lands shall be sentenced to death.’"

The Houthis are enemies of the government, so they will not obey the government. They will just continue with their unfair judgements to prove that they are still working in Sanaa

- Rafat, father

Ahmed added: “Article 126 says: ‘Anyone who commits an act deliberately to weaken the armed forces shall be sentenced to death.’”

But this is all of little comfort to Rafat, who is unemployed, depends on one of his other sons to eke out enough money to support the family, and cannot pay a ransom.

His daughter has visited her brother in prison during the past week and said that the abductees were worried as they face similar accusations to those sentenced to death.

"I need to get my son out of prison or at least make sure that he will not be sentenced to death," Rafat said.

But he has little hope that the authorities in Aden can change anything. "The Houthis are enemies of the government, so they will not obey the government. They will just continue with their unfair judgements to prove that they are still working in Sanaa.”

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