Journalists sentenced to death; rights groups call for release of prisoners amid COVID-19 breakout

Expression

On 11th April 2020, the Specialised Criminal Court in Sana’a sentenced four journalists to death on allegations of espionage during the trial of 10 journalists who have been detained for almost five years. On 18th February 2019, the Public Prosecution alleged that from 2014 to 2015, Abdulkhaleq Ahmed Amran, Akram Saleh Al-Walidi, Al-Hareth Saleh Hamid and Tawfiq Mohammed Al-Mansouri had been “collaborating with the enemy,” namely the Saudi-led coalition that has been at war with the Houthis in Yemen since 2015.

The Specialised Criminal Court in Sana’a is controlled by the Houthi authorities. According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the judge who presided over the trial, Judge Mohammad Muflih, denied the journalists’ lawyer, Abdelmajeed Sabra, standing in the case. Sabra had previously filed an application in his capacity as the journalists’ defence lawyer requesting that Judge Muflih recuse himself for having publicly expressed his opinion on the case. In what constitutes a flagrant violation of the international standards of fair trial and due process, the journalists’ lawyer was not informed of the 11th April hearing and the journalists were therefore sentenced to death following a trial in which they were unable to mount a defence.

Six other journalists who were tried in the case were convicted of publishing fake news and freed for time served, having already spent five years in prison. The six journalists, Hisham Ahmed Tarmoom, Hisham Abdulmalik Al-Yousefi, Haitham Abdulrahman Al-Shihab, Essam Amin Balgheeth, Hassan Abdullah Annab and Salah Muhammad Al-Qaedi, were arrested in 2015 along with the other four journalists and charged with broadcasting false and malicious news, rumours and propaganda in order to weaken the defence of the nation, disturb public security and spread terror among the people.

The electronic devices and other items in their possession which were confiscated on their arrest have not been returned to them and the journalists will remain under police supervision for a period of three years. However, despite the court’s decision to release the six journalists, the authorities are still delaying their release, as only journalist Salah Muhammad Al-Qaedi had been released as of 25th April 2020.

In other developments concerning the targeting of journalists in Yemen, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights has received reports that imprisoned journalist Mohammed Ali Al-Maqri’s physical and mental health has been deteriorating.

Al-Maqri, who has worked as a journalist since 2010, was taken into custody on 16th March 2019 while leaving his home in the governorate of Ma’rib. He was reportedly detained by the Political Security Directorate in Ma’rib and his family was not allowed to visit him. His wife died on 16th June 2019 and was under great stress after her husband was arrested and held arbitrarily. The nature of the charges against him are not yet known.

Al-Maqri is reported to be gravely concerned about the risk of the Corona virus (COVID-19) spreading throughout Yemeni prisons and the devastating impact that this would have in a country whose already struggling health system has been profoundly affected by the conflict, which created conditions that facilitated several deadly outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, measles and dengue fever. His concerns have been echoed by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, who on 30th March 2020 issued a press release about the potential risks of the spread of COVID-19 among detainees and prisoners in Yemen. They highlighted the “appalling detention conditions” in Yemen and urged all parties to the conflict in Yemen to immediately release all detainees, saying in part:

“The Group of Experts urges all parties to the conflict in Yemen to immediately release all detainees and political prisoners being held in political, security and military detention facilities, official and secret alike, in order to prevent and mitigate the risks of COVID-19 contagion in the whole of Yemen, in line with their obligations under International Law”.

On 30th March 2020, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights also called on “the authorities across the MENA region to show some humanity and help stop the spread of this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic by freeing all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience because they do not pose a risk to the public, but rather are at great risk themselves.”