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Prominent Yemeni activist detained by Houthis in Sanaa

Hisham al-Omeisy, who has been praised as 'one of the best voices coming out of Yemen', was taken by Houthi-Saleh forces on Monday
Hisham al-Omeisy (social media)

Rights groups have called on the Houthi rebel group and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to release a leading Yemeni political activist after he was detained earlier this week.

Hisham al-Omeisy is being held incommunicado in an undisclosed location in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, after he was taken away by National Security Bureau (NSB) security forces on Monday afternoon.

Omeisy rose to fame during the Arab Spring uprisings that started in late 2010 and is considered a reputable voice on the Yemen war, providing commentary and analysis on the armed conflict through appearances on major news networks, newspaper op-eds and social media where he tweets in both Arabic and English. 

Samah Hadid, director of campaigns for Amnesty International in the Middle East, said his detention "illustrates the lengths to which local Houthi-Saleh authorities are willing to go to silence peaceful activists".

“Hisham al-Omeisy has been detained without charge or a court appearance in breach of Yemen’s constitution, which requires anybody arrested to be presented in court within 24 hours."

She said that he was a "prisoner of conscience, whose only ‘crime’ is peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, and he must be released immediately".

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called on Houthi-Saleh authorities to "return him safely to his family".

“Yemen more than ever needs activists like Hisham al-Omeisy to bring attention to the devastation that war, famine, and disease have wrought on the country and its people."

'He never received my message'

Award-winning journalist and Yemen-specialist Iona Craig, who knows Omeisy personally, said they would regularly check on each other when one of them hadn't been seen on social media for a few days.

"The last time I checked in with him to see he was OK was at 2.32pm on 14 August. He was picked up by gunmen sometime around 2.45pm. He never received my message," she said.

She pointed out that this was the second time in as many years that he had been detained by NSB and said that "they have a reputation for beating and torturing detainees".

"My greatest concern now is for his welfare."

Omeisy has been an outspoken critic of all sides in the conflict, including the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition who have been embroiled in a controversial aerial campaign in support of Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi since 2015.

“While Houthis block access to besieged cities like Taiz, others from both sides of the conflict, including the Saudi-backed Yemen government, are making huge profits creating shortages and spiking prices of certain items such as fuel and gas," he said in an interview with the Guardian earlier this year.

Still, Craig said: "He knew he was walking a fine line by speaking critically of both sides in the war while living in Houthi-controlled territory. But he remained determined to give a voice to all Yemenis - on all sides of the conflict."

Houthi rights abuses

HRW said that since Houthi authorities took control of Sanaa in 2014 they have arbitrarily detained at least 61 people, have closed several dozen NGOs and prevented human rights advocates from travelling. In 2016, the rights group documented two deaths in custody and 11 cases of alleged torture or ill-treatment.

Since mid-2016, Yemen has seen a surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and enforced disappearances by the factions vying for power in the country.

Those targeted include critics and political opponents, tribal leaders, journalists, human rights defenders and minorities.

“Yemeni activists, journalists, lawyers and rights defenders worry daily about arrest, slander campaigns, targeted violence and joining the list of Yemen’s 'disappeared'. This is especially so when they criticise one of the parties to the conflict, whose first response is often retaliation,” Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote last month.

These rights abuses are not only confined to Houthi authorities, however. In June, HRW revealed that Yemeni government forces and Yemeni forces backed by the UAE have been running secret prisons and have arbitrarily detained, forcibly detained and tortured dozens of people. 

Yemen is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the rights to freedom of association and expression.

Supporters of Omeisy have taken to Twitter to call for his release under the hashtag #freehisham

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