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Sana Uqba

Abducted: 300 days in Houthi prison

Houthi rebels captured the capital Sanaa in September 2014 [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 May, 2017

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In-depth: Dr Abdulkader al-Guneid, the former mayor of Taiz, fell into activism during the Yemeni revolution, but his passion for human rights later landed him in a Houthi prison.

It's a humid August day in Yemen's besieged Taiz, when Dr Abdulkader al-Guneid, a physician and the former mayor of the city, is suddenly shaken by the forced entry of armed militants into his home.

"Death to America, death to Israel!" they chant, as they recklessly charge into the home of the Yemeni surgeon-turned-activist less than a year after they captured the capital, Sanaa, and spread into other major cities.

"They looted my house, terrified my wife, and took me away," he told The New Arab, nearly two years after the disturbing ordeal.

The militants, brutal and rough, twisted the doctor's arms and forced him into a car that transported him to the rebels' headquarters outside the city's borders. For the next five hours, al-Guneid was made to stand blindfolded while facing a grim wall, as members of the Houthi rebels interrogated him with question after question.

"It ended at midnight," he recalls. "Then I was put in an empty, bare room until the following evening."

They looted my house, terrified my wife, and took me away

On 6 August at 9pm, a completely disoriented Dr al-Guneid was yet again rushed into a van by six armed men.

Dressed in traditional Yemeni clothing, and donning the familiar yet somewhat repulsive sight of Qat spilling out of their mouths, the militants sang war songs and cursed their way towards the capital.

"We arrived at the National Security HQ before dawn," he said describing an horrific two days of Houthi detention. "After another useless interrogation session, I was sent to the National Security Jail in Saref, without any charges."

Nearly two million people reside in the historic Yemeni capital, where the rebels' reign of fear has forced thousands to obey their restrictive rule.

When the Houthis, backed by Yemen's powerful former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, marched into Sanaa in 2014, a sense of anxiety blanketed the once bustling capital.

Parents prohibited their children from attending school in fear for their safety, traditional Yemeni markets saw a decrease in visitors, and, for once, homes were locked as a precaution - in a country where "neighbourhood watch" is an unknown concept.

Six months later, Dr al-Guneid was still enduring the tough conditions in the rebel prison, when Saudi-led Arab coalition fighter jets flew above the city for the first time.

Unwilling to witness its neighbour fall into chaos and jeopardise its own security just a few miles away, Saudi Arabia blew the dust off of its arsenal of military equipment to wage war on the rebels.

Airstrikes showered the capital and other parts of rebel-held Yemen, and millions of civilians were suddenly caught in a deadly battle between the Houthis and their neighbouring kingdom.

But for more than 16,000 journalists, academics, politicians and activists abducted and detained by the Houthis in more than 480 rebel-controlled prisons, the real battle was confined between four dark walls and a hatch in a heavy metal door.

"They threw everyone in a dim, airless, narrow cell," Dr al-Guneid said.

"It's fully packed with inmates and only has one pathetic mattress. There is a narrow space in a corner with a latrine hole and a water tap where all body functions were managed.

"Houthi jailers were hateful, rude and crude. They almost make it a personal animosity when you are against their ideas," said the doctor, who began to vocalise his political stances on Twitter during Yemen's Arab Spring in 2011.

Last month, a report by Rights Radar entitled Yemen: Victims Behind Bars said the number of people abducted and detained by the Houthis "is estimated at 16,804 detainees".

"The number of detainees who are still in Houthi prisons in Sanaa alone reached 4,414 by the end of 2016," the report adds, noting some of the more senior prisoners include the country's former defence minister, General Mahmoud al-Subaihi and the brother of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi's, General Nasser Mansour Hadi.

Many detainees cannot take it anymore and start to bang their heads on the wall, cry or just lose their mind

More than 200 children are also said to be detained by the Houthis as international human rights organisations continue to accuse the rebel group of recruiting child soldiers across the country.

"Many detainees cannot take it anymore and start to bang their heads on the wall, cry or just lose their mind," al-Guneid remembered.

"The food they provided was only beans in the morning and evening, with rice and potatoes for lunch. It is handed through a window trap in the thick iron door," he added. The hatch, which opens just three times a day, "is the only connection with the outside world".

Exactly three hundred days later, the doctor was released without charge - though he believes the ten months of imprisonment was undoubtedly linked to his support for the February 11 revolution, which he religiously documented in both English and Arabic across his social media platforms.

"It was a long road that ended in Houthi-Saleh jail for 300 days from August 5, 2015 to May 21, 2016," he said.

Four months after his release, the doctor - like many fleeing conflict in the region - became externally displaced and now lives with his daughter thousands of miles away in Canada, persistent as ever to expose the human rights abuses in his home country.

But back in Sanaa, airstrikes continue to rock the capital while Houthi rebels cause havoc on the ground. Meanwhile, along the streets of Sanaa, activist artists, or "artivists" as they are known, paint the city's damaged walls with portraits of missing relatives as a reminder of all those that remain out of sight and in grave danger.


Follow Sana Uqba on Twitter: @Sanasiino

  

 

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