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In Yemen, Mothers Of Detained Won't Stop Protests Till Their Sons Are Freed

Women in Yemen protest outside the office of the country's High Commissioner for Human rights.
رابطة أمهات المختطفين
NPR Screenshot
Women in Yemen protest outside the office of the country's High Commissioner for Human rights.

The mothers of Yemen's disappeared fill city streets with the sound of their chants.

They protest outside the prisons that hold their sons, and the offices of human rights workers they feel should do more to help.

In Yemen's conservative society, women are rarely prominent in public life. But the women of the Abductees' Mothers' Association make themselves hard to ignore.

They parade carrying fake corpses on stretchers. They bring with them the children of the jailed. In one recent protest, they banged spoons on plates, incessantly, outside the office of the country's High Commissioner for Human rights.

"We call on human rights organizations to stand by our cause and break the silence that's shrouding this issue," one of the organizers of the group said.

She asked not to be named for the sake of her brother, who is in jail, and who, she fears, might suffer retribution for her decision to speak with foreign media.

"We try to lessen the suffering of the detained and their families," she said. "Most of what we do is stand and protest. There is risk with that we can get beaten and threatened, but it's a humanitarian cause."

The group was formed a little over two years ago, in response to a surge in the number of people arrested and disappeared in Yemen's civil war.

Jailed for criticizing Sanaa's new rulers

Activists and journalists who criticize militias are routinely imprisoned on both sides of the front lines. But this is especially true the capital Sanaa since it was taken over by Houthi rebels and allied militias in late 2014.

Human Rights Watch has tracked dozens of arrests. But the organization also cites the work of local rights group who say thousands are arbitrarily detained.

Journalists in particular are targets. In Sanaa, some reporters have now been in jail for years, in many cases still without a trial.

Their mothers know that protests aren't enough to get them released. So, some of these women crossed the front lines and many checkpoints to meet me and a small number of other reporters in Marib, a city on the government side.

A young mother, her face and body covered by the traditional conservative black garment, tells me her son was still a freshman in college when he was taken. He was studying journalism, but, she said, he was detained for criticizing Sanaa's new rulers on social media.

"The charge against him is that he published his thoughts and opinions on Facebook," she said, asking that neither she nor son be named for their safety.

She said her son was double-crossed by friends on the way back from a wedding. They had become supporters of the Houthi militias.

"It was a setup," she said. "They stopped at a checkpoint in Sanaa and were surrounded by cars. He was taken away."

Her son was 17 years old when he was imprisoned. She said he was sentenced in a court. But the hearing was private, and he was given no access to a lawyer.

Since the sentence, she has been banned from visiting the prison where he is being held. But she learned about his condition from a fellow prisoner who recently got out.

Yemeni children demonstrate on the occasion of the UN's Universal Children's Day on November 20, 2017 in front of the UN offices in the capital Sanaa.
AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni children demonstrate on the occasion of the UN's Universal Children's Day on November 20, 2017 in front of the UN offices in the capital Sanaa.

Stories of torture

"He eats the rotten food or whatever leftovers the guards give him. Now he's in solitary confinement in the dark," she said.

"They ask him to confess to things ... things that he didn't commit. Then they tortured him. They tied his hands and feet together for a week."

Amin al-Ayashi is the mother of Tawfik Mansuri, a journalist who was taken in one of the most high-profile cases.

Militias snatched him and eight other reporters from a Sanaa hotel – the Dreams Hotel – in 2015. They had been using the hotel as their office after it had become too dangerous to go to their newsrooms.

It took Ayashi more than four months to find her son. She eventually tracked him down to a detention center for people being held without trial.

She broke down in tears as she described seeing her son in prison for the first time.

"Tawfik was in agony and he was tired," she said. "He is weak from torture."

She visited Tawfiq with his wife and 9-year-old daughter. She said he put on a brave face for them: "He says he's fine. He never tells us he's not, but I see he suffers from the look his eyes. His skin is yellow – he's not allowed any sun."

Many of the mothers we met had stories of torture. Their sons are beaten and deprived of sleep. Sometimes the guards play cruel games – one mother tells me her son was made to stand barefoot on an open can of tuna, for hours.

Journalists seen as dangerous criminals

Journalists are seen as especially dangerous criminals. Ayashi's family said they once got access to Tawfiq by lying to the prison guards about who they were coming to see.

The mothers hope that their protests will garner enough attention to force their sons' release. But they say it's dangerous work.

"We were detained several times, but we still continue," the organizer of the Abductees' Mothers' Association said.

She described a protest in al-Hodeidah, a town outside Sanaa that's under Houthi control: "I and another female colleague were filming the protest and the Houthis took us for an investigation. We were touched and questioned and humiliated in a very disrespectful and humiliating way."

They were eventually released. But she said, sometimes the militias go after male relatives in the family. And sometimes they even punish the bus drivers who take the women to the protests.

"You rent a bus or a car to get you to where the protest is happening and then the bus or car driver would be chased and kidnapped," she said.

A small number of members of the Abductees' Mothers' Association have seen their sons released, she said. But so far, none of the journalists have been freed. The mothers won't stop, she says, until they are.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.