Yemeni minister says Houthis abducted 70 Yemenis, including 18 UN staff

Yemen’s human rights minister demanded on Monday that the UN close its offices in Sanaa and shift its workers to the southern city of Aden to safeguard them from the Houthis’ escalating crackdown.

Ahmed Arman told Arab News that the number of Yemeni personnel abducted by the Houthis during their continuing crackdown has risen to 70, and the Houthis have broadened their campaign to include employees of public institutions.

“We urge the United Nations to shut its Sanaa offices, boycott talks with the Houthis, and transfer humanitarian relief from Houthi-controlled regions to the legitimate government crossings and ports,” the Yemeni minister said.

Since late May, the Houthis have attacked the homes and offices of Yemenis working for the UN Yemen envoy’s office, the World Food Programme, the UN Development Programme, UNESCO, and other UN agencies, as well as Yemenis working for the US-funded National Democratic Institute, Partners Yemen, the German-funded GIZ, and Resonate Yemen.

The Houthis also seized former Yemeni personnel at the US, Japanese, and Dutch embassies in Yemen, as well as Ahmed Hussein Al-Nunu, a senior official and educationalist at the Ministry of Education in Sanaa.

Arman said that the number of abducted persons has increased from 50 in the early days of the operation to 70 presently, including five women and 18 UN personnel, who were held incommunicado at an intelligence and security detention facility in Sanaa.

The arrests occurred as the Houthis claimed to have unearthed an espionage network connected to the US and Israel, which was responsible for transferring important military intelligence to the two countries while also causing damage to Yemen’s education, agricultural, and health sectors.

At the same time, international rights groups and UN officials have urged the Houthis to free the workers, saying that the militia’s persecution of foreign relief organizations is exacerbating Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

CARE International, Oxfam, and Save the Children repeated their request in a joint statement on Sunday for the Houthis to provide information on the kidnapped workers and release them, saying that the “unprecedented” crackdown will delay relief deliveries to Yemen’s 18.2 million people.

“Humanitarian organizations and aid workers dedicate their efforts to support the people of Yemen and do so by abiding with humanitarian principles,” the three organizations that operate in Yemen said in the statement.

“Targeting of humanitarian, human rights, and development workers in Yemen must stop. All those detained must be immediately released,” they said.

On Sunday, UN Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg reiterated the same call for the Houthis to free the workers and halt their human rights violations against Yemenis in regions under their control.

“He specifically repeated the demand for the immediate and unconditional release of UN personnel and aid, and civil society workers who were arbitrarily detained in Sanaa and continue to be held in incommunicado detention,” Grundberg’s office said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, the US Central Command said on Monday that its forces destroyed two drones in Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen, while US-led marine task forces intercepted two Houthi drones over the Gulf of Aden in the last 24 hours.

This comes as maritime security groups that monitor ship attacks have not reported any new attacks in international trade lanes off Yemen in the last seven days, despite the militia saying it would increase its anti-ship campaign in support of the Palestinian people.

Since November, the Houthis have carried out over 100 drone, missile, and drone boat strikes on commercial and navy ships in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean. The Houthis claim they solely target Israel-linked ships to pressure Israel to halt its war in the Palestinian Gaza Strip. 

 Houthi authorities in Yemen must release dozens of people arrested and forcibly disappeared since May, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

In a report, HRW said the Houthis have forcibly disappeared Yemenis in territory they control, including at least 13 UN staff, as part of a wider crackdown on civil society.

“The arbitrary arrests appear to be based on the detainees’ present or past employment,” HRW added.

Beginning May 31, Houthi forces began arresting employees of several NGOs, raiding homes and offices. One source said more than 60 people had been arrested as of June 12.

In all cases, Houthi forces “arrived unannounced at the homes of those they were aiming to arrest with several armored vehicles and an average of about 10 to 30 armed men,” HRW said.

“Almost all forces were wearing military uniforms and head and face coverings, sometimes with only their eyes showing. In many cases, the forces arrived early in the morning while families were still asleep.”

No search or arrest warrants were presented in any of the cases, and Houthi forces have denied requests from family members asking for the whereabouts of their kin. No formal charges have been brought against any of the detainees.

However, starting June 10, Houthi authorities began releasing a series of videos showing Yemeni men detained between 2021 and 2023 confessing to spying for Israel and the US.

HRW said there is a “high risk” that the confessions were coerced, and sources told the NGO that the timing of the releases was intended to “frame” the recently detained as part of a larger “spy network.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk have called on the Houthis to release all UN and NGO staff.

Since the start of the raids in late May, many people in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen have fled.

The existing “brain drain” from Houthi-controlled areas will only worsen as a result of the arrest campaign, one source told HRW.

Another said: “Although I managed to flee … I couldn’t sleep … I’ve had panic attacks every day since I fled from Sanaa … I’m very worried about my friends and colleagues in Sanaa who are just waiting for Houthis to arrest them.”

Since 2014, the Houthis have detained and forcibly disappeared hundreds of people, HRW said, warning that the militia regularly practices torture in detention facilities.

The Houthis have also “carried out significant violations of women’s rights and freedoms, have repressed freedom of speech and assembly, and have detained dozens of journalists, human rights defenders, academics, and political opponents,” the NGO added

Niku Jafarnia, Yemen and Bahrain researcher at HRW, said: “The Houthis are using arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances as a political tool at a time when the people living in their territories lack even the most basic needs.

“The Houthis should immediately release all of these people, many of whom have spent their careers working to improve their country.

“The international community should be doing everything in their power to ensure that these people are immediately released.

“Many of them have been invaluable members of Yemeni civil society organizations and staff in UN agencies and nongovernmental international groups.”

One Yemeni living abroad told HRW: “It’s almost as if our life in Yemen is over after this. I thought I would move back and start a family there, and now it’s clear to me I can’t do that. We can’t live like this.”

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