Asmaa al-Omeissy set off from southern Yemen to seek safety and reunite with her father in the capital Sana’a. Instead, the 22-year-old, who has two young children, was subjected to a brutal ordeal that has left her as the first known Yemeni woman on death row on ‘state security’ charges.
In September 2016, her husband, an al-Qa’ida suspect, fled and left her during an ambush by forces from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition near the southern city of al-Mukalla. After briefly detaining her following the ambush, the coalition troops let her go.
But this was only the start of her troubles. A family friend had offered to drive her from al-Mukalla to the Houthi-controlled Sana’a so that she could re-unite with her father. Another male passenger travelled with them. On 7 October 2016, Houthi security forces stopped their vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital and took them away for interrogation. Following their detention, Asmaa al-Omeissy’s father was also summoned and arrested.
Their arrest marked the beginning of a horrific ordeal including enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment, and death sentences following a grossly unfair trial. Because of their connection with the armed conflict in Yemen, these violations by the Houthis may amount to war crimes. Since the Houthi armed group and its allies took control of large parts of Yemen in late 2014, thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured on the basis of their perceived political allegiance or religious beliefs, rights groups say.
Amnesty International and other local and international human rights groups have documented such cases and urged the Houthis to respect their obligations under international law. But far from heeding these calls, the Houthis have been widening their crackdown against opponents and critics, including journalists and human rights defenders. Those detained include people they perceive as supporting their adversaries—Yemen’s UN-recognized government, based in the south, and its backers, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.
Moreover, the Houthis have also been increasingly using the judiciary to settle political scores, with several grossly unfair trials resulting in death sentences. These trials and the process leading up to them demonstrate a complete disregard for Yemeni and international law. Asmaa al-Omeissy and her three co-defendants, for example, were barred from contacting the outside world for months while they were taken from one facility to the next, including a “secret” part of the Criminal Investigations Department.
She was unable to get any news about her two children from a previous marriage—now four and seven years old—who currently live with family members in the south. Asmaa al-Omeissy was beaten up in front of her 50-year-old father Matir al-Omeissy, including being punched and hit with a cane by a policewoman, the father told me. She was also forced to watch two other detainees in the case being tortured, hung from the ceiling by their wrists as they were kicked and punched all over their bodies.She was interrogated over alleged links to Al-Qaeda, and wrongfully accused of committing an “illegitimate sex act” with her male travel companions.
“It was a psychological war,” Asmaa al-Omeissy’s father told me. “Can you imagine what it’s like for a woman to be kept alone in [an interrogation] room and accused of such things all the while being innocent?” he said, explaining how interrogators tried to break her by attacking her “honor.” In Yemen, extra-marital affairs are both illegal and taboo. It was not until May 2017 that Asmaa al-Omeissy and the others were finally charged and referred to Sana’a’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court that handles “terrorism” and “state security” cases. The charges included “aiding a foreign country in a state of war with Yemen,” a reference to coalition member the United Arab Emirates. None of the defendants had legal representation during the trial.
While the three men were released on bail months before the verdict, including two on medical grounds, it is not clear why Asmaa al-Omeissy was the only defendant in the case who remained in custody. All three men subsequently fled to safety in areas of Yemen outside Houthi control, and she alone was present in court on 30 January when the judge sentenced her and two of the other defendants to death. The spurious “indecent act” charge landed her an additional sentence of 100 lashes and her father, a 15-year prison sentence.
Those who have spoken to Asmaa al-Omeissy at Sana’a Central Prison have told me her morale is extremely low. Her prison conditions continue to be woefully inadequate. She has to pay for her food, has no access to clothes or hygiene products, and her relatives haven’t visited, out of fear of being detained themselves.
Conditions in Yemeni prisons have long been inhuman and degrading, but local activists say they have only worsened under Houthi control. Detainees are crammed into filthy, overcrowded cells, and are systematically extorted for money.
And although abuses against female detainees, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, were reported in the past, activists say they are shocked at the recent rise in reports of such abuses. One human rights defender told me his group has documented hundreds of cases of female detainees who were subjected to torture and humiliation, including “degrading use of women prisoners in construction work.”
Asmaa al-Omeissy’s father tells me he wants the world to know about her case and that she is innocent. A lawyer has filed an appeal request on her behalf, but he has been struggling to obtain the case file from the court. Meanwhile, the court has been liberally issuing death sentences, including in January against 52-year-old prisoner of conscience and member of the Baha’i community, Hamid Haydara.
Houthi authorities must stop making a mockery of justice: they must immediately quash these unsafe convictions and death sentences, and end the use of this inherently cruel punishment. Every day Asmaa al-Omeissy spends behind bars and on death row compounds this injustice, leaves her at risk of further violations, and is time stolen from her children’s lives.
Rawya Rageh is a Senior Crisis Adviser at Amnesty International.
Article was originally published on Newsweek.
Photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH