Yemen’s Houthi Rebels Steal Food Aid, Terrorize Captive Populations

Shiite Houthi tribesmen perform a traditional dance during a tribal gathering showing support for the Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, May 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

New Year’s Eve brought an unusual run of bad press for the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen, whose activities are rarely discussed at length by Western media. A report at the Washington Post collected accounts of the Houthis terrorizing civilians and torturing prisoners, while the United Nations complained about food assistance stolen from hungry people in Houthi-controlled areas.

The Houthis normally do not receive much attention because the press is focused on collateral damage from the Saudi-led military intervention. The narrative has been about Saudi overreach and the pointless extension of a civil war the Houthis are destined to win, especially during the push to discredit the Saudi government after its agents murdered Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. The fact that the Houthis overthrew the democratically-elected and internationally-recognized government of Yemen and have illegally occupied the capital city of Sanaa since 2014 is scarcely mentioned.

The Washington Post clobbered the Houthis on New Year’s Eve with a story about the imprisonment and torture of civilians by the Houthis, beginning with a forthright admission that not enough attention has been paid to human rights violations by the insurgency:

In Yemen’s war, a Saudi-led coalition backed by the United States has been vilified for killing thousands of civilians with airstrikes, waging an economic war that has driven millions to the precipice of starvation, and allegedly torturing foes and critics in secret prisons. The criticism has gained more traction since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in October focused attention on Riyadh’s behavior and the coalition’s conduct in Yemen.

But abuses are also being perpetrated by the rebels, known as Houthis. Torture, detentions and forced disappearances are widespread, according to legal documents and interviews with victims and human rights activists. The abuses are fueling an expanding atmosphere of fear and intimidation in this capital and across rebel-controlled areas.

[…] The Houthis have targeted activists, journalists, lawyers, religious minorities, business executives — anyone deemed to be against their rule and ideology. Gunmen have raided homes at night, arresting and beating people over minor disputes or for voicing criticism of their movement. Few face trials or have access to lawyers. Courts are either nonexistent or used purely for sentencing, according to human rights activists and victims.

The Post noted that many civilians living in Houthi-controlled areas are so terrified of the occupying force that they refuse to speak with the media, believing themselves to be under constant surveillance. Their fears are not unreasonable, as residents of Houthi-controlled areas and foreign aid workers say the paranoid authoritarian insurgency has spies everywhere.

Those few willing to talk about their treatment by the rebels spoke of arbitrary imprisonment for years on end, beatings, electrocutions, and psychological torture such as mock executions and threats against the wives and children of prisoners.

Among other horrors, the Houthis were accused of roasting prisoners over an open fire, tossing live snakes into their cells, pummeling them with metal chains, and dragging them off to a chamber known by prisoners as “The Workshop” where the jailers went to work on their victims with knives.

In early October, when a group of young women marched in the streets of Sanaa to protest rising food prices and frozen government salaries, the Houthis went after them with “daggers, batons, and electric prods.”

“The Houthis also sent women to lecture the protesters about committing themselves to Allah and not attending such gatherings,” the Post added.

Despite presenting themselves as a pious jihadist movement – another fact grossly under-reported by international media, as is their slogan “Allahu Akbar! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse Upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!” – the Houthis are said to have become even more corrupt than the decrepit Yemeni bureaucracy they overthrew, looting public treasuries and skimming taxes to enrich themselves while the people under their control sink deeper into poverty and starvation.

“People are frustrated. They say, ‘I am hungry, dying, there’s no salary.’ Meanwhile, the Houthis are driving $200,000 Porsches and Range Rovers,” said activist Hisham al-Omeisy, who fled to Egypt after the Houthis arrested and tortured him for accusing them of corruption.

Sources for the report said the Houthis grew more brutal and paranoid after they turned on their ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former president of Yemen who threw in with the insurgency in a bid to undermine his successor. The Houthis murdered Saleh in 2017 and evidently decided to take off the gloves when dealing with his appalled followers.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) on Monday announced that humanitarian food assistance has been stolen in Houthi-controlled areas and resold on the open market. The WFP also accused a local partner organization linked to the Houthi Education Ministry of fraud.

“It was discovered that some food relief is being given to people not entitled to it and some is being sold for gain in the markets of the capital,” the WFP said, describing photographic evidence of trucks carting away food from distribution centers while local officials falsified paperwork to cover the theft.

“This conduct amounts to the stealing of food from the mouths of hungry people. At a time when children are dying in Yemen because they haven’t enough food to eat, that is an outrage. This criminal behavior must stop immediately,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley.

The WFP asked Houthi authorities to help crack down on theft and ensure humanitarian shipments reach the intended beneficiaries, but much of the theft has been perpetrated with the assistance of the insurgency’s bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, the Associated Press published the results of an investigation on Monday that found the Houthis’ adversaries were no slouches when it comes to stealing food from the hungry:

Across Yemen, factions and militias on all sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from going to groups suspected of disloyalty, diverted it to front-line combat units or sold it for profit on the black market, according to public records and confidential documents obtained by the AP and interviews with more than 70 aid workers, government officials and average citizens from six different provinces.

The problem of lost and stolen aid is common in Taiz and other areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which is supported by the Saudi-led military coalition. It is even more widespread in territories controlled by the Houthi rebels, the struggling government’s main enemy during the nearly four years of warfare that has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The AP argued that while starvation in Yemen is widely blamed on the Saudi coalition blockading ports controlled by the rebels, in truth a great deal of the $4 billion in humanitarian aid sent to Yemen found its way into the country, only to be stolen by various factional militia or turned aside by roadblocks and combat zones.

“In the northern province of Saada, a Houthi stronghold, international aid groups estimate that 445,000 people need food assistance. Some months the U.N. has sent enough food to feed twice that many people. Yet the latest figures from the U.N. and other relief organizations show that 65 percent of residents are facing severe food shortages, including at least 7,000 people who are in pockets of outright famine,” the AP reported.

The Houthis responded to these allegations by variously pretending to be surprised by the United Nations and Associated Press findings, refusing to answer their telephones, and denouncing the allegations of torture as a propaganda campaign by the Saudi coalition to “cover up their own crimes.”

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