Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hisham is free, but Yemen's 'disappeared' crisis continues

A Yemeni protester calls for the release of detainees held in a Sanaa prison [AFP].

The words of Martin Luther King, "Free, at last," come into their own, as one Yemen's top social media activists, Hisham al-Omeisy, 38, walks free from a Houthi jail in Sanaa, after five month's detention. 

The Houthis did not officially charge him, or allow him access to a lawyer or to his family. His arrest, however, was likely linked to his job at the US embassy in Sanaa. Hisham's case was so sensitive, that we - his friends - couldn't and still can't reveal much of our conversations with his family in Sanaa, without risking their safety.

Hisham doesn't need an introduction.

If you are on Twitter and following news on Yemen, you almost certainly follow Hisham.

Hisham's case attracted widespread attention from human rights groups, and local and international media, because of the significance of his online activism. He has been one of the few top English-speaking commentators inside the country providing almost daily updates on events in Sanaa for his followers and the #Yemen Twitter audience.

As war-torn Yemen faces a dearth of happy news, the Yemen Twitter community celebrated photos this week of Hisham hugging his children for the first time since his detention in August.

But as we celebrate Hisham's release, it must also serve as a reminder of Yemen's "disappeared crisis"; the thousands of forcibly disappeared young men across the country, who don't enjoy Hisham's high media profile, and whose names and faces we don't hear about.

With some 12,000 arrests and more than 3,000 men forcibly disappeared, mothers, sisters and daughters of these abducted men began showing up in front of the central prison or police stations across major Yemeni cities, searching for their kidnapped sons, fathers, brothers and other male relatives. They started to organise and formed a collective named, "Mothers of Abductees Association".

The Association works as a pressure-group, raising awareness of the missing men, and advocating for their release.

The collective's spokesperson told me in a phone interview that many young men are forcibly disappeared for their political activities, and some for no reason at all.

In many cases, the mothers have no information or access to their imprisoned relatives - only if they are lucky they might receive some information. The imprisoned young men are held in terrible conditions and exposed to severe torture.

Dozens have been killed under torture, or have to endure a lasting disability from their wounds. Some parents even risk assault if they question Houthi authorities. In this incident, a young forcibly disappeared man's father was assaulted and beaten to death in front of the prison when he went searching for his son.

Journalists face disappearance because of their work, as affirmed by the recently freed Yousef Al-Ajlan who was released from a Houthis prison in Sanaa after a year-long detention.

The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that, "if the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world".

As the Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa in September 2014, and started a crackdown the press, Yousef wanted to avoid trouble, so he quit journalism and took a taxi driver job instead.

Still, in October 2016, armed men kidnapped Yousef as he was in his taxi in front of his house. During his detention, he was severely tortured and threatened with rape, and barred from seeing his family for months.

During this time, Yousef was transferred to several prisons and saw dozens of other detained journalists, accused of the same charges; "working for the enemy (Saudi Arabia) as a journalist". After a year, Yousef was finally freed in November, thanks to a prisoners of war exchange deal between Houthi and anti-Houthi tribes.

The death of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the semi-collapse of his political party, the General Public Congress (GPC) have allowed the Houthis to target many of Saleh's supporters.

My family and friends in Sanaa told me of men being dragged out of cars or public transport at checkpoints, and being interrogated about links to the GPC. Later, they are detained and then vanish. The local press reports Houthi executions and the assassination of Saleh's loyalists.

In Aden, the disappearances crisis is no different from in Sanaa. Mothers and daughters of kidnapped men regularly hold sit-in demonstrations calling for information about their relatives' whereabouts and release.

Hisham's case typifies Yemen's disappearance crisis.

But amid the unspeakable human suffering in Yemen, the disappearances crisis lacks attention, let alone an effective investigation. Locally, the climate of fear is on the rise and international human rights groups lack constant and full access to Yemen.

Nonetheless, increased pressure and domestic and international condemnation are needed until all of Yemen's disappeared people are found, and freed.

*This article was originally written for and published in The New Arab, today.