Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Silencing dissent in Taiz

The Houthi movement in Yemen escalated its clampdown on dissent this week by arresting a prominent pro-democracy advocate in Taiz, reports Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Alert: There are Houthi militiamen in my house.”

Abdel-Kader Al-Guneid’s last tweet on 5 August was a five-word plea for help. The 66-year-old physician and pro-democracy activist best known for his vocal criticisms of the Houthi movement was forcibly taken from his home in Taiz by group members.

According to his wife, Salwa Mufadhal, who witnessed his abduction, a car pulled up at their home in Taiz’s Al-Humaira neighbourhood. At least seven men in civilian clothes carrying guns got out, surrounded the house, and shouted for Al-Guneid to come out and “answer their leader”.

When he refused, the men forced their way into the house and grabbed Al-Guneid as he shouted at them to leave him alone, Mufadhal told the international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). His whereabouts remain unknown and have not been disclosed to his family or human rights organisations.

After they seized the presidential palace and overran the Yemeni capital Sanaa in January 2015, the Houthis captured parts of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, in March. Al-Guneid has been vocal in his complaints about indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets in Taiz by both the Houthi forces and those of they ally, ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh.

His support for the popular resistance and the Saudi-led airstrikes against Houthi-Saleh forces -aimed at reinstating exiled president Abdrabo Mansour Hadi-might have made him target for the Houthis who have demonstrated zero tolerance for peaceful dissent in the past.

Al-Guneid has condemned the Houthis’ recruitment of child soldiers and the deaths of young Houthi recruits in the conflict. He has also given many interviews to international media outlets to draw attention to the human rights violations committed by the Houthi and Saleh militias.

Four days after his abduction, the Houthis arrested ten members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Islah Party in Sanaa, including four women. After an outcry, the women were released, but the men remain in detention. According to HRW, approximately 100 Al-Islah members have been detained without charge and in some cases forcibly disappeared by the Houthis since March.

In Taiz, other public figures critical of the Houthis have been detained, including activists and physicians Yassin Al-Qabbati and Abdel-Rehim Al-Samei’ and Abdallah Al-Thifani, a prominent academic, during the month of Ramadan.

Since December 2014, there have been reports that the Houthis have been detaining activists, tribal leaders critical of the group, and members of the Al-Islah Party which supports the Saudi-led military campaign against the rebel group.

According to Al-Guneid’s wife, her husband had received threats by phone and through social media for his outspoken views. “He expected to be arrested,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from her home in Taiz.

But the raid on his home took him by surprise, nonetheless. According to Mufadhal, her husband did not have time to change his clothes in the minutes it took the militiamen to invade their home, handcuff him, and then drag him “barefoot and in his undershirt” to their vehicle.

They then searched the house, taking $300 that belonged to the family and another $200 that belonged to the maid. They also took all the mobile phones in the house, Al-Guneid’s laptop, and a 100-year-old antique pistol that had belonged to his grandfather.

“They forced me to type in the codes for all the phones so they could search their content. They promised to return everything by the evening, which did not happen,” she said.

Because his fate and whereabouts remain undisclosed, HRW has described Al-Guneid’s arrest as an “enforced disappearance.”

In late May, Houthi forces detained two journalists, Abdullah Qabil and Youssef Al-Ayzari, who had critically reported on the movement. According to HRW, the Houthis held them in a building in Dhamar that was hit the next day in a coalition airstrike, killing them and their captors.

No known legal process has been followed in any of the cases of arbitrary detention. “The entire justice system in Yemen has been frozen since the Houthis took over the presidential palace in January, so there are no court hearings whatsoever going on at the moment,” HRW researcher Belkis Wille said.

Al-Guneid’s detention, like those of other critics of the Houthis, “will continue to have a chilling effect in silencing some who were vocally critical of the Houthis and now will be more careful in posting anti-Houthi comments because they fear arbitrary detention,” Wille said.

While the climate of fear in Yemen is very much present, it is not new, she added. “It has been in place since the Houthis cracked down on protesters in January. That is what sent out the first shockwaves and silenced their critics.”

Only a day before his arrest, Al-Guneid had tweeted about the abduction of journalists by the Houthis and the agony they were bringing to them and their families.

In an email interview, Nagwan, Al-Guneid’s daughter, said her father had been willing to “take the risk of speaking his mind to condemn the Houthi and Saleh militias’ indiscriminate attacks and to expose their human rights violations in Taiz.”

While Al-Guneid’s abduction might have fueled the climate of fear in Taiz and intimidated critics, Nagwan believes that the continuing attacks on civilians have also spread terror across Yemen’s third-largest city.

“The attacks are breeding contempt and more protests in the city,” she commented.

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