On Saturday morning, September 18, the Yemeni public woke up to shocking images of the Houthis executing nine civilians from the west coast province of Hodaidah. The Houthis, an Iran-backed militia group, had accused them of collaborating with leaders of the “foreign aggression” to aid in the killing of Houthi leader Saleh al-Sammad in April 2018.
The execution scene was something from medieval ages, carefully designed to spread fear among Yemenis. Crowds of people were gathered in Tahrir square, Sanaa’s main square. They had big screens to broadcast the event for people who were standing far away. Senior Houthi leaders were given front row positions overseeing the whole heinous event.
One after the other, these civilians are pushed to the ground with their face to the floor, while a Houthi soldier stands at their heads holding an AK47 rifle fires into their backs to the chants of “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews and Victory to Islam”.
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The most telling image was that of Abdulaziz al-Aswad. He was a child when abducted from his village in Hodeidah. Abdulaziz, who had been left paralyzed due to the severe torture he endured inside Houthi prisons, was unable to stand unaided and was instead carried from behind while he witnessed his last moments. His lawyer said that he had filed a motion asking for the court to examine him medically, but the court rejected the motion and ordered the execution to be carried out.
Most of the Yemeni public did not get notice of the trial process until the death sentence was approved by the Supreme Court in the Yemeni Capital Sanaa, as the legal process was expedited, with families only informed on Thursday, September 16, that their sons, husbands and relatives were scheduled to be executed the following Saturday. On Friday, Yemeni activists started posting on social media that the Houthis were about to carry out the summary executions of nine people – nine people who had been abducted, forcefully disappeared, and tortured before appearing in front of a Houthi court to face murder charges.
This tragic story begins with the killing of Saleh al-Sammad in April 2018 when an Arab Coalition precision strike hit the vehicle he was traveling in. At the time, al-Sammad was serving as the head of the Houthi’s Political Council – the governing body of Houthi controlled areas. Al-Sammad had been visiting the Hodeidah province to mobilize and recruit locals to fight with the Houthis. His role was to recruit enough people to prevent the coastal city from falling into the hands of Arab Coalition-backed Yemeni forces.
Between September and November 2018 after al-Sammad’s death, the Houthis abducted 10 people, all from Hodaidah province. Among those was Sheikh Ali al-Quzi – a tribal leader of one of the largest tribes in the Hodaidah region. Al-Quzi was a member of the former ruling party and held the position of deputy governor and secretary-general of the local council. Al-Quzi had served with the Houthis in Hodaidah but in November 2018, he went to the Houthi authorities in Sanaa seeking information about a member of his tribe abducted by the Houthis. He was arrested and then forcefully disappeared until April 2019 when he appeared in the Houthis-run specialized criminal court in Hodaidah.
He was one of 10 others present in court facing charges including, “Participating in a criminal arrangement with US President Donald Trump and others, to assassinate the leader Saleh Al-Sammad”.
The Houthi court named 62 suspects in total, including then US President Donald Trump, his national security adviser at the time John Bolton, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, other foreign leaders, and the 10 defendants present in court.
Unlike the charges levelled at foreign leaders, the 10 defendants were representative of normal citizens, including among their ranks a tribal sheikh, an elected official, a police officer, a fisherman, a child, and a number of schoolteachers.
Their lawyer said they were being held in secret detention facilities and he had no access to his clients. He would only meet them during hearings for a limited time right before submitting his defense in front of the court.
The group’s lawyer also said that he would see clear signs of torture on his clients, but the judge would order the proceedings to continue and disregard any accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.
In one particularly abhorrent example, while objecting to the torture of his clients, with the body of one clearly marked by cigarette butts, the judge said, “stop whining, it is just signs of cigarettes … proceed with your defense.” One of the 10 defendants later died under torture inside a Houthi prison in August 2019.
At the final hearing at the preliminary court in August 2020, the judge decided not to wait for the defense to submit their petition – standard procedure before issuing a sentence – and decided to issue the verdict sentencing the remaining nine defendants to death.
At the court of appeal, the torture became more intense. The defendants spoke about sleep deprivation for days, being hanged from the ceiling, nails being pried off fingers, and constant beatings. The court of appeal decided to add additional charges instead of reviewing the irregularities of the preliminary court, a move done in order to weaken the defense’s motion to dismiss the charges.
The court of appeal then started expediting the process. In one instance three hearings were held over the course of three weeks. Their lawyer said the judges were clearly proceeding without reviewing the defense’s appeal, accusing the hearings of being politically motivated, and argued that the verdict had already been determined.
In April 2021, the court of appeal filed the paperwork to the supreme court recommending that all nine defendants face the death penalty for several charges, including conspiring against their own country, working with the American and Saudi governments, and being part of a plot to assassinate the Houthi leader Saleh al-Sammad.
In late August 2021, the supreme court started reviewing the case to issue the approval for the death penalty. It took only 27 days to review the whole case file and issue the death sentence against the nine individuals.
The death penalty is part of the penal code in Yemen, but legal proceedings generally take between 8-10 years for the courts to issue a death sentence. The supreme court usually takes another year to review a case before approving the death sentence. Instead of this process, the Houthis pursed a series of sham trials, culminating in the execution of Yemeni civilians with the goal of spreading fear.
Houthi-run courts have issued more than 400 death sentences against journalists, activists, politicians and in some cases normal citizens since 2015. All have been accused of participation in a foreign conspiracy against Yemen. Some were being tried in absentia, but many remain in Houthi prisons. For those left waiting, they could only watch what the Houthis did to those nine victims while waiting for their own turn.