Marib: Farouk Baakar was on duty as a medic at Al Rashid hospital the day a bleeding man was brought into the emergency room with gunshot wounds and signs of torture. He’d been whipped across the back and hung by his wrists for days.
The patient, Baakar learned, had been left for dead by the side of a highway after being held captive in a prison run by Al Houthi militants who control northern Yemen.
Baakar spent hours removing bullets and repairing ruptured intestine.
He tended to the patient’s recovery for 80 days and, at the end, agreed to pose for a selfie with him.
Weeks later, Al Houthi security officials grabbed the man again.
They searched his phone and found the photo.
Then they came for Baakar.
Militiamen stormed the hospital, blindfolded Baakar and hustled him away in a pickup truck.
Because he’d given medical help to an enemy of Al Houthis, they told him, he was now their enemy too.
He spent 18 months in prisons within the expanse of Yemen controlled by Al Houthis.
He says they burned him, beat him and chained him to the ceiling by his wrists for 50 days until they thought he was dead.
Baakar and his patient are among thousands of people who have been imprisoned by Al Houthi militia during the four years of Yemen’s grinding civil war.
1000cases of torture in secret prisons
Many of them, an Associated Press investigation has found, have suffered extreme torture - being smashed in their faces with batons, hung from chains by their wrists or genitals for weeks at a time, and scorched with acid.
The AP spoke with 23 people who said they survived or witnessed torture in Al Houthi detention sites, as well as with eight relatives of detainees, five lawyers and rights activists, and three security officers involved in prisoner swaps who said they saw marks of torture on inmates.
These accounts underscore the significance of a prisoner-swap agreement reached Thursday at the start of United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Sweden between Al Houthi militants and the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
As a confidence-building measure, the two sides agreed to release thousands of prisoners, though details must still be hammered out.
But while the coalition side would release captured Al Houthi fighters, the militants would largely free civilians who, like Baakar, were imprisoned in brutal sweeps aimed at suppressing opposition and obtaining captives who could be traded for ransom or exchanged for Al Houthi fighters held by the other side.
The Abductees’ Mothers Union, an association of female relatives of detainees jailed by Al Houthis, has documented more than 18,000 detainees in the last four years, including 1,000 cases of torture in a network of secret prisons, according to Sabah Mohammad, a representative of the group in the city of Marib.
The mothers’ group says at least 126 prisoners have died from torture since Al Houthis took over the capital, Sana’a, in late 2014.
Mosques, ancient castles, colleges, clubs and other civilian structures have served as first-stop facilities for thousands of detainees before they are moved into official prisons, according to testimonies of victims and human rights agencies.
The mother’s group counted 30 so-called black sites in Sana’a alone.
One of the former prisoners of Al Houthis who spoke to the AP was a school teacher from the northern city of Dhamar who, after his release, fled to Marib, which is under control of Al Houthis’ opponents. He asked that he be identified only by his first name, Hussein, because he fears for the safety of family members still in militant territory.
He was held for four months and 22 days in an underground cell. He was blindfolded the entire time, he said, but kept count of the days by following the Muslim calls to prayer. Throughout his confinement, he said, his jailers beat him with iron rods and told him he was going to die.
“Prepare your will,” he said they told him.
Who are Al Houthis?
Al Houthis began in the 1990s as a Shiite revivalist religious movement. The group turned into an armed militia in 2004, when the military under then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh killed their founder, the brother of the current leader, Abdul Malek Al Houthi.
Saleh fought Al Houthi insurgency for six years, with thousands killed on both sides before reaching a cease-fire just months ahead of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that put an end to his rule.
Less than three years later, Al Houthis joined ranks with Saleh in an alliance of convenience - the former autocrat saw a possible route back to power, while the militants gained backing from the army units still loyal to him.
126prisoners tortured to death since 2014
Together, they occupied most of northern and western Yemen, driving out Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
In response, the US-backed coalition launched its campaign to restore Hadi’s internationally-recognised government and thwart what Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates say is an attempt by Iran, Al Houthis’ ally, to take over.
Al Houthis have sought to entrench their rule by cracking down on a wide range of perceived enemies - young activists, religious minorities, socialists and others who might oppose Houthi rule.
First months are the worst
The first few months in Al Houthi detention sites are usually the worst, ex-inmates say, as the militants improvise and inflict their torture.
Anas Al Sarrari recalls slowly regaining consciousness in a dark corridor in the Sanaa’s Political Security prison.
The 26-year-old critic of Al Houthi brutality held his head between his swollen hands and bruised wrists, as flashes of two months of torture raced through his mind.
He was eating grilled corn when masked militiamen snatched him from a main street in Sana’a one morning in September 2015.
He remembered hanging for 23 hours by his handcuffed wrists from the ceiling of a stuffy interrogation room as numbness claimed his fingers, arms and much of his body. The cuffs began to slit his wrists and he tried to rest on his toes.
“Death must be less painful than this nonstop torture,” he recalled thinking at the time. “One more hour like this and I will die.”
His jailers unchained him from the ceiling for a couple hours each day, when he was given hard bread and a plate of vegetables and dirty rice crawling with cockroaches.
When they gave him yogurt, he was able to see the date written on the container and mark the passage of time.
“My mother doesn’t even know if I am alive or dead,” he thought.
He remembered seeing a torturer with a stun gun staring at his head before dealing a blow with all his might. Al Sarrari collapsed.
He doesn’t know how long it took for Al Houthi militiamen to untie him from the ceiling and then dump him in the corridor.
He tried to stand but couldn’t pull his body together. “Maybe I am in heaven?” he remembers thinking. “Maybe it’s a bad dream?”
At daylight, he tried again to move, but failed. “Help me,” he screamed. Militiamen dragged him into a cell. Only then did he realise he was paralysed. He had no one to talk to, no one to take him to the bathroom. He urinated and defecated like a newborn baby.
Guards sometimes took him out to wash and returned him to the filthy cell, where he banged his head on the wall in desperation. After four months, they cleaned him up and released him.
Al Sarrari showed AP copies of his medical records. He now uses a wheelchair and believes that the purpose of his torture and release was to send a message to others who might want to criticise Al Houthis.
“To see people with disabilities, coming out of prison after excessive torture will terrify everyone: Look, this will happen to you if you speak up,” he said.