Houthis Subject Model to Unfair Trial: Yemen

Human Rights Watch

Houthi authorities are carrying out an unfair trial of a Yemeni actress and model, Human Rights Watch said today. She has been arbitrarily detained since February 20, 2021. The case has been marred with irregularities and abuse.

In June the authorities brought the model, Intisar al-Hammadi, 20, twice before the West Municipality (Sanaa) Court on the apparent charges of committing an indecent act and drug possession, her lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The authorities have denied her lawyer access to court documents since he was appointed to handle her case in March and suspended him from appearing in court since late May, apparently in retaliation for his public comments on the case, the lawyer said. Sources told Human Rights Watch that Houthi authorities forced al-Hammadi to sign a document while blindfolded during interrogation and offered to release her if she would help them entrap their enemies with “sex and drugs.” Houthi authorities also threatened to subject her to a “virginity test.”

“The Houthi authorities’ unfair trial against Intisar al-Hammadi, on top of the arbitrary arrest and abuse against her in detention, is a stark reminder of the abuse that women face at the hands of authorities throughout Yemen,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Houthi authorities should ensure her rights to due process, including access to her charges and evidence against her so she can challenge it, and immediately drop charges that are so broad and vague that they are arbitrary.”

Al-Hammadi, born to a Yemeni father and Ethiopian mother, has worked as a model for four years and acted in two Yemeni TV series in 2020, Sad al-Ghareeb and Ghorbat al-Bun. Her relatives told Human Rights Watch that she is the sole breadwinner for her family of four, including her father, who is blind, and her brother who has a physical disability.

In TV interviews in 2020, al-Hammadi said she enjoyed modeling work more than acting and that she struggled with racism in the industry because of the color of her skin.

Between May and June, Human Rights Watch interviewed two of al-Hammadi’s relatives in Yemen; al-Hammadi’s lawyer, Khaled al-Kamal; two witnesses who visited al-Hamadi in prison; and three human rights groups documenting her case. Human Rights Watch requested comments from the Houthi-controlled Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General’s Office but did not receive a response.

Al-Hammadi’s lawyer said that on February 20, Houthi forces stopped the car in which she was riding with three other people in Sanaa and arrested them all. Houthi forces blindfolded al-Hammadi and the female friend with her and took them to the criminal investigations building, where they held Al-Hammadi for 10 days without access to the outside world. Her relatives said that they searched for her during that time but that the Houthi authorities did not reveal her whereabouts.

In March the authorities transferred her to the Central Prison in Sanaa. Her lawyer said that authorities arrested her because she was riding in a car with a man accused of drug dealing: “Her phone was confiscated, and her modeling photos were treated like an act of indecency and therefore she was a prostitute [in the eyes of Houthi authorities].”

He said that prison guards verbally abused her, calling her a “whore” and “slave,” because of her dark skin and Ethiopian origin. Both the general prosecutor’s office and the court authorities refused to give her lawyer a copy of the list of charges against her. Her case was transferred in June to the court, where she appeared for hearings on June 6 and on June 9.

The lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the authorities halted plans for a forced “virginity test” after Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the plans on May 7.

“Virginity testing” is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights, regarded as a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, gender-based violence, and discrimination. The World Health Organization has said that “virginity tests” have no scientific validity and that healthcare workers should never conduct them. Houthi authorities should immediately cease this abusive practice and prohibit anyone from carrying out such a procedure, Human Rights Watch said.

The lawyer said that a pro-Houthi armed man threatened him on April 27 while he was sitting in a cafe in Sanaa: “A man in plain clothes came to me and asked me if I was Intisar al-Hammadi’s lawyer and I said yes, then he told me that my family and I would pay the price if I don’t quit al-Hammadi’s case.”

The lawyer said that on May 26 he received a notification from the Sanaa municipal authorities, without explanation, that he had been suspended from working at the West Municipality (Sanaa) Court, effectively preventing him from continuing to work on al-Hammadi’s case any longer. After the lawyer’s suspension, Houthi authorities banned publication of information about al-Hammadi’s case, a news site reported.

On May 24 a group of 13 people including human rights defenders and the lawyer were allowed to visit al-Hamadi in prison for about 40 minutes. The group published a joint statement about their visit the next day.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two members of the group, who said that al-Hammadi told them that there is no evidence against her and that authorities had forced her to sign a document blindfolded. She also told them that during the first interrogations Houthi officers told her that she could be released if she agreed to work with them in setting a trap for their enemies by seducing them with sex, drugs, and alcohol, but she refused.

The lawyer said that five other women are detained alongside al-Hammadi in the same prison based on similar “offenses” relating to “indecency” but the women have refused to publicize their cases fearing social stigma and harm to their families’ reputations.

The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen reported in 2020 that the Yemeni government, the Houthi armed group, and the Southern Transitional Council-affiliated Security Belt forces abused women and committed acts of gender-based violence, including sexual violence. “Throughout 2019 and 2020 the de facto authorities continued to operate a network of official prisons along with unofficial and secret detention facilities,” the group said in their report. “This network includes a series of secret facilities in former residential buildings in and around Sanaa, in which women and girls have been detained and subjected to violations.”

The Associated Press reported in 2020 that women face increasing repression by the Houthi armed group, with accounts of former women detainees subjected to enforced disappearance, detention, and torture in detention by the Houthi authorities.

“In addition to suffering the indignities and agony of abusive prison conditions, women detainees in Yemen also face social stigma by society that can follow them for the rest of their lives,” Page said. “Al-Hammadi is just one of an unknown number of Yemeni female detainees who are arbitrarily detained and require immediate protection and justice.”

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