October 1, 2023

Yemeni activist who revealed Houthi sexual abuses ‘detained by Saudi Arabia’

3 min read

A prominent Yemeni human rights activist who revealed sexual abuse by Houthis in the country’s jails has been detained for more than a year by Saudi intelligence and her whereabouts is unknown, her friends have claimed.

The claim about Samira al-Houri’s disappearance has been made by Ali Albukhaiti, a prominent Yemeni politician and writer, who told the Guardian he decided to go public after he felt all private diplomatic avenues to secure her release had been exhausted. Albukhaiti drew parallels with the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist and dissident, saying although he had no evidence about her fate he feared for her safety.

Houri was released from a Houthi jail in 2019 and gave numerous powerful interviews, mainly on Arabic channels, claiming female prisoners were systematically raped, mistreated and held for ransom. Her testimony contributed to UN security council sanctions being imposed on two Houthi security officials in February 2021.

It was later alleged that she admitted some of her testimony on Arabic TV was untrue and she had embellished claims at the request of Saudi officials.

A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthi rebels for the last eight years, but the Houthis have gained control of much of the country, mainly in the north, and the war is at a standstill.

Houri was arrested at her Riyadh home by Saudi intelligence on 17 April last year along with her 20-year-old son, Albukhaiti said.

With 1.2 million followers on Twitter, Albukhaiti was once a spokesperson for the Houthis but broke with them and is now seen as a prominent commentator on Yemen politics.

He said Houri had told him that some, but not all, she said about her time in prison was either false or embellished. She had told him that some of the embellishment was on the instructions of the Saudi officers.

Albukhaiti added: “Only 5% of Houthi crimes have been revealed, and their attitude to women is not far different from the Taliban. Houthi leaders support arbitrary detention, and have detained many women in Yemen, but they do not endorse sexual crimes as policy. Within their detention centres there is sexual abuse and harassment by officers, and trade-offs to get sexual benefits in return for release.”

But he said Houri had told him her claim that the Houthis demanded she lure Houthi politicians with sex and then film them to prevent them from defecting, in effect attempted blackmail, was not true.

He said it was possible she had been arrested by Saudi officials because they feared she was going to admit to being used as a propaganda tool. It was also alleged she felt Saudi money intended to help free Yemeni women in jail had been misused.

Shortly before her arrest last year, Albukhaiti said Houri had rung him in tears saying she wanted to leave Saudi Arabia and go to Europe, but she did not know if it was possible.

He demanded the Saudi authorities reveal what had happened to her, adding: “No law in the world allows any kind of enforced disappearance for more than a year without allowing families and lawyers to know anything about their case.”

He said after making representations to Saudi officials many months ago he came to London believing his contacts with the Saudis through his private channels would secure her release. “Her relatives were also asking that I make no public comment in the hope that she might be released,” he said.

The story raises issues about Saudi Arabia’s influence over some Yemeni activists. It also underlines long-held tribal traditions protecting women from detention and abuse may have broken down during Yemen’s often brutal nine-year war.

At the time of her release, Houri said her detention lasted more than three months in a secret prison in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. “I was sentenced to death on charges of communicating with the [Saudi-led Arab] coalition,” she said. “I was tortured, threatened with execution and forced to record videos of confessions that I am a spy for the Arab coalition, and I am the one who gives the coordinates to them. I was forced to sign an affidavit to accept any orders or tasks they assign to me, whether they are immoral, political or military.”

She was eventually released by the Houthis after she paid a large bribe or ransom.

Saudi officials have been contacted for comment.

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