CJ Werleman talks to Samira al-Houry, an activist who was assaulted and raped in a Houthi prison

In the final days of the Trump administration, the United States designated Ansar Allah – the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen – a terrorist group, a move since revoked by the Biden administration due to concerns the designation impeded humanitarian assistance from reaching the 20 million Yemenis dependent on food and medicinal aid.

No matter how one defines the Houthi militias, however, there’s no arguing the fact the group is responsible for grotesque war crimes and crimes against humanity, credibly accused of ethnic cleansing, forcibly conscripting child soldiers, bombing civilian neighbourhoods, public executions and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

 “The Houthi militia is a racist group that has no regard for peaceful coexistence, human rights, civil society, and democracy,” Mohammed al-Rumin, a Yemeni journalist, told me. “They have killed thousands of civilians, including women and children,” alongside dozens of journalists and human rights activists.


Samira’s Story

One of those activists is 33-year-old Samira Abdullah al-Houry, who was abducted from her home by armed soldiers on the night of 27 July 2019 and held in a Houthi prison for three months, where she was tortured, assaulted and raped.

“The last thing I saw before they put a blanket over my head was a man putting handcuffs on my young daughter who was not yet 13 years of age then,” al-Houry told me.

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Al-Houry was taken to an abandoned school that the Houthis had converted into a detention facility in the Taiz neighbourhood the capital Saana, which held approximately 120 other women, including Bardis al-Sayighi, a prominent Yemeni poet who was arrested for speaking out against Houthi repression.

After accusing al-Houry of “aiding the enemy,” the Saudi-led coalition, her abductors began using methods of psychological torture to force her into making a ‘confession’. Not knowing the whereabouts of her daughter, the Houthi guards convinced her that the screams emanating from a nearby cell was the sound of her daughter being raped.

“When I think about those moments, I lose control of myself,” said al-Houry.

Thankfully, her daughter was unharmed, but the methods of torture used against al-Houry shifted from psychological to physical, including beatings, electrocution, mock execution and sexual assault.

“They shocked me with electricity in different parts of my body. They didn’t stop even when my body began breaking down,” she said.

Al-Houry says she witnessed other women, including pregnant mothers, being tortured in front of their children, even those as young as four and six years old, saying, “The guards did so without even the slightest sense of humanity”.

“Even today, whenever I fall asleep, I hear the screams of the girls in the interrogation rooms, pleading for the torture to stop and crying out for help”.

Eventually the guards succeeded in wearing her down both physically and mentally, so to stop the pain and suffering caused by her imprisonment and separation from her daughter, al-Houry gave a false confession to the head of the Houthi Criminal Investigation Department – Sultan Zaben, an individual who has been sanctioned by the US Government for torturing civilians.


Shunned by her Family

SAM Monitors, a Geneva-based human rights organisation, has accused Zaben and his Criminal Investigation Department of “perpetrating systematic violations against women, including arbitrary detention and torture against approximately 200 women detained in Houthi detention facilities”.

Zaben forced al-Houry to not only confess to espionage and other crimes but also demanded she kiss his foot on a stage in front of guards and detainees. She was then released and reunited with her daughter, before returning home.

Her captors, however, released a video of her confession on a Houthi controlled television station upon her release, which made her a criminal in the eyes of her neighbours and family members in Saana.

“My family thought I was a traitor and criminal,” says al-Houry. “The Houthis made it appear that way in the video, and so no one from my family would accept me after I came out of prison”. Feeling “treated like a criminal” by her family, al-Houry fled for Saudi Arabia, where she lives today with her daughter.

“When my older brother saw me, he said he wouldn’t want to hear a thing from me,” al-Houry told a Saudi television news program last year. “I got what he meant. He was unable to do a thing to change what had happened to me, so it was better for him not to listen to me”.

“Ok, I won’t tell you,” she told her brother. “But I will tell the whole world”

Al-Houry told me that Yemeni women in Houthi controlled territory are caught in a double-bind. 

“If we say nothing, then our silence empowers this terrorist organisation, but if we speak out against the injustice and violations we are subjected to on a daily basis, then the Houthis exploit our cultural shaming practices,” particularly in regard to women, says al-Houry.

Al-Houry believes sharing details of her ordeal will help people in Houthi controlled areas see through the group’s deceit and propaganda, which, in turn, will make a meaningful difference for those who have been freed under false confessions and the hundreds of others Yemeni women who remain trapped in Houthi prisons.

“We just want the truth to reach the world,” says al-Houry.

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