Houthi crimes against women

By Kholoud al-Halaly and Fernando Carvajal



As Yemen enters the seventh year of the war, the Houthis continue their heavy-handed repression of dissent among the population under their control. From their center in Sana’a, the Houthis have deployed a complex network of security forces, irregular militias and supervisors (mushrefeen) who serve as shadow authorities within all state institutions down to neighborhood ‘Aqil. These men and women serve not only as the leaders of armed forces across Houthi-held territory, but also as the face of Ansar Allah, the strong-arm prosecuting dissent, often reaching far into the virtual world of social media. Their persecution of men, women and children is not only to maintain order in a highly unstable environment, but also it is a tactic to extract economic gains, from a grand strategy to monopolize the private sector to simple extorsion.

Civil Society organizations (CSOs) and international non-governmental organizations (iNGOs) estimate Houthi rebels hold thousands of men, women and children in prisons and black sites across northern territories under their control. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) quoted estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) at near 6,000 (African) migrants under detention across Yemen, many by Houthis and smugglers. Human Rights activist Noura al-Jarwi estimates that between December 2017 (coinciding with the execution of Ali Abdullah Saleh and downfall of GPC) and December 2020, the Houthis detained around 1,100 women. Nabil Fadel, head of the Yemeni Network for Combating Human Trafficking, told us Houthi militia detain individuals with no regard for the rule of law as a censorship tactic, often charging men and women as spies. Arrests at home, check points, public streets, kidnappings, and forced disappearances are a common practice by Houthi security forces, militias and supervisors, with individuals detained in villas used as secret private prisons, central prisons or jails operated by the Political Security (PSO) or National Security Bureau (NSB), both now merged under the Department of Security and Intelligence headed by Gen. Abd al-Hakim Hashem al-Khaywani. In January 2021 UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen added the tactic of hostage taking by Houthis “as leverage for future prisoner exchanges” under the auspices of the UN Special Envoy to Yemen.

Currently, there are several high-profile cases of individuals detained or tortured to death while detained by the Houthis. The death of judge Abdo Ali Thabet al-Hajry from al-Dhale is the latest example of a detainee tortured to death. His family received his body without any explanation. Another case in May involved the arrest of Mustafa al-Mawmari, a YouTuber arrested following his comments over corruption. The case attracting most attention this year involves a young female model, Entessar Hammadi, reportedly arrested in February under chargers of modeling…and prostitution. Her case grabbed international attention in April when Houthi rivals spread an online campaign to highlight her detention and international organizations like Amnesty International pleaded for her release.

Other high-profile cases include the arrest of Hisham al-Omeisy, a Sana’a resident turned activist at the start of the war. Hisham was a prominent voice on social media drawing attention to coalition air strikes in Sana’a, often commenting on activities of both Houthis and the General People’s Congress (GPC) until his arrest in August 2017. His arrest coincided with rise in tension between Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Initial reports highlighted the role of the ‘Aqil and Supervisors as the perpetrators of his arrest, initially said to have been prompted by a problem with the local supervisor. Hisham was detained for nearly six months, he later spoke of his detention at the PSO prison in Sana’a, often transferred to other sites, under deplorable conditions in the underground holding cells with dozens of detainees. He was interrogated, not only about his own activities but also about other ‘individuals of interest’, including foreigners. He was often tortured in similar methods mentioned by other prisoners released and interviewed by international organization. The case of US journalist Casey Combs, who resided in Sana’a from late February until his release from a Houthi detention center in June 2015, is just one of a dozen involving round-ups of foreigners by Houthi elements in Sana’a since start of the war. Houthis have shown a complete disregard for humane treatment of prisoners, Yemenis or foreigners, which have resulted in permanent physical disabilities, death, and reported suicides.

As rumors surfaced this month of a new round of prisoner exchange between Houthis  and al-Islah party, also involving Saudi soldiers, new concerns rise among observers over negotiations and final lists. This latest round seems to be outside the process observed by the Office of the UN Special Envoy, a potential repeat of exchanges between Houthis, Islah and southern elements. What was labeled as the ‘largest prisoner swap’ under UN mediation in October 2020 was later used to highlight Houthi tactics and the failure by international organizations to deal with deception tactics.

There is a need to briefly address the complex network deployed by Houthi leaders, developed over the six years of war, and how security officials, militia and supervisors use detentions to deter dissent, monopolize sectors of the economy and extort financial gains to sustain patronage networks, often involving more criminal elements. Nine cases of women detained and tortured by Houthi elements will shed light on persecution, tactics, permanent physical injuries caused by various torture methods and the failure by international organizations and western governments to deter Houthi crimes.


Dissent and economic capture

There are three main reasons behind arrests by Houthis, none are random. Economic capture and deterring opposition are primary reasons for this practice, while extorsion serves as a tool to sustain patronage networks. Detentions and torture are not used to merely deter dissent, or extract information but are often used in order to capture economic resources, property or an existing business of interest to Houthi leaders or their client.[1] Houthis utilized this tactic at start of the war in late March 2015 but have expanded their efforts since the killing of Saleh in 2017.

A number of Yemeni organizations and the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen have extensively documented the capture of private businesses, including banks, by Houthis throughout the war. Capture of businesses also includes oil companies, business properties, land, villas, armored vehicles, money exchange shops, and private schools. The Houthis confiscated all of this initially through partnerships and later hostile take-overs and extorsion. The network of officials in Sana’a overseeing the initial capture extended from the high ranks among security officials, who utilized state security forces to take over businesses and negotiate contracts with international organizations. As economic gains increased, officials delegated supervision of businesses to clients, many of which hail from Sa’dah province and are often known only by their kunya, teknonym. It has not been a smooth practice either, as a number of conflicts between high-ranking officials or between patrons and clients have sparked over the years, leading to dismissals and house arrests, or even assassinations.

Courts in Sana’a, and those under the authority of the Legitimate Government, have proven completely ineffective in dealing with such crimes. Information gathered by Yemeni organizations and shared with international organizations has highlighted the number of crimes but failed to produce any relief to victims of extra judicial detentions, torture, extorsion or capture of assets. As Yemenis demand UN and western governments sanction Houthi officials, the sanctions imposed since 2014 by the UN Security Council and the US government on nearly a dozen officials have had zero impact on their activities. Abd al-Malek al-Houthi, the face of the Houthi leadership, has been under UN  and US sanctions since April 2015. His brother, Abd al-Khaleq Badr al-Din al-Houthi (listed as commander of MoD Reserve Forces) and Abdullah Yahya (Abu Ali) al-Hakem (current chief of staff for Military Intelligence) have also been sanctioned by the US and the UN since November 2015. The targeted sanctions, short of listing as terrorists, focused on individuals perceived as leaders on the ground, in the context of the war against president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi and al-Islah party. They were seen as spoilers in the political transition process.

Since April 2015, western governments have lacked the appetite for a new round of sanctions on Houthis leaders. Tensions among the Permanent Five (P5) members of the UN Security Council were not the only reason for this hesitation, since their focus shifted toward the network procuring weapons systems from abroad. The gradual focus on weapons procurement has pleased some Houthi rivals that prioritize relations between Tehran and Sana’a, but the general public affected by Houthi crimes across territory they hold demand more focused action. While European governments remained on the sidelines, the US administration in 2020 finally moved to sanction a number of individuals identified by Yemeni organizations as primary perpetrators of human rights violations in Sana’a.

In December 2020, the US not only began to signal a willingness to list Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) but announced sanctions against five security officials. The US listed Sultan Zabin, (d.2021) head of the Sana’a criminal investigation department; Abd al-Hakim al-Khaiwani (director of the Security and Intelligence Department, the agency that merged the PSO and NSB in September 2019), who serves as deputy minister of the interior; Abd al-Qader Ahmed al-Shami (former director of the PSO) current deputy director of the Security and Intelligence Department; Abdul Rahab Jarfan, former head of the NSB; and Motlaq Amer al-Marrani, former deputy of the NSB. The US claimed the listing of these officials extends from their “serious human rights abuses”, and linked Zabin to the all-female militia force al-Zainabiyyat. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen has reported on Zabin and al-Zainabiyyat and investigated their role in recruiting women, militarization of young women, detentions and torture of women detainees. The Zainabyyat units have also played a major role in terrorizing African migrants held in Sana’a. Their leaders are said to be primarily wives of Houthi leaders and from among the women serving in security forces prior to the start of the war.

Sultan Zabin died in April 2021. Rumors point to Covid-19 but no Sana’ authorities gave no official cause, and a leader of al-Zainabyyat also died the same week in Sana’a. This has proven the use of sanctions a bit shortsighted. The US sanctioned al-Khaiwani but not his boss, Abd al-Karim Amir al-Din al-Houthi, current Minister of Interior and uncle of Abd al-Malek. Jarfan and al-Marrani were replaced years ago, even though they were accused by many detainees released in recent years of being behind arrests, torture and capture of economic assets in Sana’a. More recent round ups in Houthi-held territories clearly highlight the irrelevance of such targeted sanctions by the UN or US, it is often that pro-Houthi social media activists celebrate listings as a badge of honor. Round ups also tend to coincide with rumors of imminent prisoner exchanges.


Women as targets

While Houthis often promote images of large demonstrations in Sana’a and elsewhere, authorities have cracked down on protest by civilians since December 2017. Protests by women have been a target since Houthis consolidated their control in Sana’a, from pro-GPC gatherings, to celebrations of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s birthday, price hikes or detentions, Houthis have made it clear no dissent, or talk of dissent, is allowed.

The specific targeting of women by Houthis peaked when al-Zainabyyat units were created. Some Houthi opponents claim the armed unit “resembles the Hesba women’s groups formed by ISIS”, and described it as “a kind of intelligence apparatus, which responsibilities include searching women and homes, teaching women the Houthi believes, as well as maintaining security and order in women’s prisons.” On the surface, some would claim creating al-Zainabyyat aimed at observing Yemeni custom when dealing with women opponents. Yet, accounts of harassment, arrests and treatment of over one thousand women in jails and detentions centers, including interrogations, torture and rape as described by a number of former detainees clearly illustrate the complete disregard for custom, sharaf (honor) of women. As we see from the following interviews of former prisoners, tactics used by Houthis are employed not merely to extract information, punish detainees but also to permanently shame the women before their families and society as a whole. Many “detainees have faced social rejection after their release, and some were killed by their families”.

A couple of former prisoners have recently surfaced on social media outlets from their new place of residence to tell their stories. Birdis al-Siyaghi and Sonia Saleh have been guest speakers on many Rooms hosted on Clubhouse, telling their stories to Yemenis from across the political spectrum worldwide. Birdis, a 30 year-old mother of three, was taken from a relative’s house in Sana’a after hiding from Houthi authorities following her demand for return of her husband’s body (died in 2018). She described her arrest, as two bus-loads of armed men and women arrived at her house, she was blindfolded and transported to a ‘villa’ used as a detention center with around 120 prisoners. Later she was moved to a prison with a cell “the size of a grave”. Throughout her detention she was interrogated, beaten and tortured with electrical shocks after water was poured over her body. Bardis says she was detained under charges of “betraying her country and terrorism against the state”.

Bardis, who suffered permanent damage to her right eye, described her nine-week solitary confinement toward the end of her detention, as her health deteriorated. This prison held 13 other women, one woman was held along with her three-year old child, and the oldest prisoner is believed to have been 52 years old. She has also mentioned “that many detainees tried to commit suicide. Some of them, between the age of 13 and 35”. Sonia, an activist, was kidnapped three months following the establishment of her civil society organization and taken to the prison at the National Security Bureau in Sana’a. She was accused of planning a coup against Houthis and communicating with Saudi Arabia’s ambassador Muhammed al- Jabir.

Sonia later describes how she was moved to a location an hour and a half outside Sana’a. She tells of women screaming and crying, more interrogation, tortured in similar methods described by Birdis, with cold water poured over her body and shocked with a stun-gun. She described being ‘skinned’ along her body, and following an incident where her leg was dislocated, she was finally taken to a hospital she identified as 48 Hospital along the Taiz road outside Sana’a. she was later transferred again to the NSB jail where she identified one Mohammed Abu Talib as the supervisor. Sonia accuses her captors of having taken pictures and made videos of her, looking through her phone and asking about people in her pictures. While describing conditions at the prison, Sonia mentioned a number of women detainees had burn marks on their bodies, signs of torture through cigarettes extinguished on their bodies.

The other seven cases, where we changed the names of five of the women to protect their identities, recount similar conditions under detention and serve to confirm the methods of torture. Two cases in particular stand out. First, Fawzia, a former policewoman who served 18 years before she was arrested and detained at the central prison in Sana’a. Her interview corroborated reports from other detainees, specifically by mentioning that women under detention by the criminal investigation department were never listed on prison logs, preventing families from confirming detention and visits. This practice create suspicion upon disappearance, building challenges to a woman’s honor. Fawzia also confirmed the build-up that led to the creation of al-Zainabyyat and start of operations targeting women early in 2018. The other, is the case of Handaj, a former teacher who eventually was part of a prisoner exchange. She was rounded up November 2018 following a visit to Aden after her husband died, lured by a co-worker.

Hoda, an activist, was imprisoned at the central prison in Sana’a for over 14 months. She was held along with around 100 women in tight cells, and recalls being questioned and tortured in an area at the prison referred to as ‘The House’ (al-Dar). Hoda says women were given ‘pills’, birth control pills, to prevent menstrual cycles while being repeatedly raped. Nour, whose father (a mosque preacher) was accused of collaborating with the Coalition, was also detained at the central prison in Sana’a. she was interrogated, electrocuted, burned, and raped. Nour became pregnant while in jail. Then Doaa, arrested along her one-year-old daughter, spent two years in jail. Her husband obtained a divorce in her absence. Doaa says her older son was recruited by Houthis and deployed to the front lines where he died. She was not informed until her released.

Finally, other women like Nawal and Samar are detained for the mere act of collecting money from relatives or their salaries. Nawal was detained at a PSO check point in Dhammar en route to collect her salary in Aden. Her phone and computer were searched, and she was threatened with having her photographs published online. Samar, detained for months after collecting money sent by her husband from Mareb. She was taken to a house where along with other women she baked bread for Houthi soldiers under supervision of al-Zainabyyat.


No deterrent

As the armed conflict continues and the Houthis position themselves to extract maximum advantage during negotiations with the Coalition and the Legitimate Government, there seems to be no deterrent. Extraordinary abuses of human rights by the Houthis proliferated to contain opposition as well as extract maximum economic benefits, while today it is not just about the top leadership using detention and torture, but clients at the local level employ same methods to enrich themselves.

By the start of 2017, the Houthis had created a complex network of Supervisors as an extension of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee (SRC) under Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. This mix of die-hard supporters from Sa’dah, militia commanders and tribal leaders served as an instrument of control from within government institutions, down to the village and neighborhood level. This network’s priority by 2017 was to counter local leadership and their relationship with Ali Abdullah’s Saleh’s GPC, as well as to break existing ties with al-Islah party. It used leaders from outside the area to eliminate any hesitation by local forces to enforce orders from above, eliminated loyalties to local structures. There is no sanctions regime that can deter crimes described by women detainees, and the longer the conflict continues the more widespread crimes will be under increasingly autonomous local leaders. Arrests of women will continue as a method of punishment against rivals by targeting their honor.

Estimates by most Yemeni civil society organizations place the number of women detained by Houthis at over one thousand. These are individual lives destroyed, mothers and children separated, entire families permanently damaged. Sanctions and terrorist listings do not impact the situation on the ground. Houthis have learned to leverage the number of prisoners available for exchanges, and iNGOs are constrained by the need to access hundreds of thousands of people near famine throughout Houthi-held territory. Individuals are left with no recourse in the absence of State institutions and the rule of law, and Houthis are in no hurry to address issues of governance if they can maintain the narrative of an ongoing resistance movement threatened by rivals from within.

[1] See reports by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen for information on banks taken by Houthis, along with companies like Universal Corp. and Yemen Armor Corp (See Report UN Panel of Experts Jan2020, pg. 33-35 https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/S_2020_326_E.pdf).


Photo credit: Kheldon/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

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  • Kholoud Al Halaly and Fernando Carvajal

    Kholoud al-Halaly is an independent journalist based in the Middle East. Fernando R. Carvajal served as Armed Groups and Regional Expert on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen between April 2017 and March 2019. He has worked and lived in and out of Yemen for 20 years. His research includes state building, democratic systems, tribal systems, US foreign policy and security in the Middle East.

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