Cairo: Samera Al Huri’s fellow activists were disappearing, one by one. When she asked their families, each gave the same cryptic reply: “She’s traveling.” A few of the women re-emerged. But they seemed broken and refused to say where they had been for months.
Al Huri soon found out.
A dozen officers from Al Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen snatched her from her home in the capital Sana’a at dawn.
They took her to the basement of a converted school, its filthy cells filled with female detainees. Interrogators beat her bloody, gave her electrical shocks and, as psychological torture, scheduled her execution only to call it off last-minute.
Women who dare dissent, or even enter the public sphere, have become targets in an escalating crackdown by Al Houthis.
Activists and former detainees described to The Associated Press a network of secret detention facilities where they are tortured and sometimes raped.
“Many had it worse than me,” said Al Huri, 33, who survived three months in detention until she confessed on camera to fabricated prostitution charges.
Women have increasingly taken political roles in Yemen as men die in battle or languish in jail in a conflict now dragging into its sixth year. Women are organising protests, leading movements or working for international organisations - all acts Al Houthis view as a threat. Once women were guarded from detention and abuse by conservative traditions and tribal protections, but those taboos are succumbing to the pressures of war.
Inclusion in peace talks
“This is the darkest age for Yemeni women,” said Rasha Jarhum, founder of the Peace Track Initiative, which lobbies for women’s inclusion in peace talks between Houthis and the internationally recognised government.
Conservative estimates of women currently detained range from 200 to 350 in the Sana’a area alone, according to multiple rights groups.
Noura Al Jarwi, head of the Women for Peace in Yemen Coalition, has documented 33 cases of rape and eight instances of women debilitated by torture.
Systematic arrests and prisons rife with torture have been central to war efforts by both sides, the Iranian-backed Al Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition trying to oust them, the AP has found.
But the intimidation campaign against women is unique to rebel-held areas, observers say.
The AP met with six former detainees who managed to flee to Cairo before the coronavirus pandemic grounded flights and closed borders. Their accounts are supported by a recent report from a UN panel of experts.
One woman, a former history teacher who asked not to be identified to protect family in Yemen, was swept up in a crackdown on protests in December 2017.
She was taken to a villa on Sana’a’s outskirts, though she didn’t know where. At night, all she could hear was barking dogs, not even the call to prayer.
“I was so far away, like I’d fallen off the earth,” she said.
In more than one case, three masked officers told her to pray and said they would purify her from sin. They took turns raping her.
Al Houthis’ human rights minister denied the torture allegations and the existence of clandestine women’s prisons.
“If this is found, we will tackle this problem,” Radia Abdullah, one of two female Houthi ministers, said in an interview.
She acknowledged many women had been arrested on charges of prostitution and collaboration with the Saudi-led coalition.
A parliamentary committee created last autumn to probe reports of illegal detention planned to pursue the issue of female detainees.
But a February 16 internal memo obtained by the AP complains that the Interior Ministry pressured the committee to end its investigation.
The first major round-up of women came in late 2017, after Al Houthis killed their one-time ally in the war, former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, provoking a wave of demonstrations.
The scope has expanded since, said Al Jarwi. “First they came for opposition leaders, then protesters, now it’s any woman who speaks against them.”
One woman told the AP she was dragged from her taxi at a protest spot, beaten and detained. A peace advocate for a London-based humanitarian group was locked in a Sana’a police station for weeks.
Al Huri said when she rejected a Houthi official’s request to snitch on other activists, she was abducted in July 2019 by a dozen masked officers with Kalashnikovs, “as though I was Osama bin Laden.”
She was imprisoned in an abandoned school on Taiz Street, a main thoroughfare in Sana’a. A fellow detainee, Bardis Assayaghi, a prominent poet who circulated verses about Houthi repression, counted around 120 women held there.
Some nights, the head of the Sana’a criminal investigation division, Sultan Zabin, took the “young, pretty girls” out of the school to rape them, Al Huri and Assayaghi said.
The UN panel of experts identified Zabin as running an undisclosed detention site where women have been raped and tortured.
At least two villas on Taiz Street have been used to detain women, along with other sites around the capital, including apartments, two hospitals and five schools, Al Jarwi and ex-detainees said.
Female detainees say Al Houthis aim to humiliate them with rapes and allegations of prostitution. When the history teacher was released in March 2018, her limp body was dumped under an overpass. Her family refused to see her because of the shame.
In Yemen’s patriarchal society, survivors of sexual assault are often ostracised, sometimes even killed by relatives to preserve family “honour”.
Women are set free only after pledging to stop their activities and after videotaping confessions to prostitution and espionage.
Al Huri knows Al Houthis will release her confession soon. But she’s convinced that telling her story is worth the risk.
“There are girls still in prison,” she said. “When I try to sleep, I hear their voices. I hear them pleading, ‘Samera, get us out’.”