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Women targeted for abuse in Yemen

CAIRO (AP) — Samera al-Huri’s fellow activists were disappearing, one by one. When she asked their families, each gave the same cryptic reply: “She’s traveling.” A few of the women re-emerged. But they seemed broken and refused to say where they had been for months.

Al-Huri soon found out.

A dozen officers from the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen snatched her from her home in the capital, Sanaa, at dawn.

They took her to the basement of a converted school, its filthy cells filled with female detainees. Interrogators beat her bloody, gave her electrical shocks and, as psychological torture, scheduled her execution only to call it off last-minute.

Women who dare dissent, or even enter the public sphere, have become targets in an escalating crackdown by the Houthis.

Activists and former detainees described to The Associated Press a network of secret detention facilities where they are tortured and sometimes raped.

Taiz Street, a main avenue in Sanaa, is dotted with several of them, hidden inside private villas and the school where al-Huri was held.

“Many had it worse than me,” said al-Huri, 33, who survived three months in detention until she confessed on camera to fabricated prostitution charges, a grave insult in conservative Yemen.

Long-held traditions and tribal protections once guarded women from detention and abuse, but those taboos are succumbing to the pressures of war.

As men die in battle or languish in jail in a conflict now dragging into its sixth year, Yemeni women have increasingly taken political roles.

In many cases, women are organizing protests, leading movements, working for international organizations or advocating peace initiatives — all acts the Houthis increasingly view as a threat.

“This is the darkest age for Yemeni women,” said Rasha Jarhum, founder of the Peace Track Initiative, which lobbies for women’s inclusion in peace talks between the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

“It used to be shameful for even traffic police to stop a woman.”

‘I’D FALLEN

OFF THE EARTH’

Systematic arrests and prisons rife with torture have been central to war efforts by both sides, the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition trying to oust them, the AP has found.

Yet the intimidation campaign against women, observers say, is unique to rebel-held areas.

Estimates of women currently detained range from 200 to 350 in the governorate of Sanaa alone, according to multiple rights groups. The Yemeni Organization for Combating Human Trafficking says that’s likely an undercount.

Other provinces are more difficult to pin down. Noura al-Jarwi, head of the Women for Peace in Yemen Coalition, estimates that over 100 women are detained in Dhamar province south of the capital, a major crossing point from government-controlled areas into Houthi-run territory.

Al-Jarwi, who runs an informal support group in Cairo for women released from Houthi detention, has documented 33 cases of rape and eight instances of women debilitated by torture.

The AP met with six former detainees who managed to flee to Cairo before the coronavirus pandemic grounded flights and closed borders. Their accounts are supported by a recent report from a U.N. panel of experts, which said sexual violations may amount to war crimes.

One woman, a former history teacher who asked not to be identified to protect family in Yemen, was swept up in a crackdown on protests in December 2017.

She was taken to a villa somewhere on Sanaa’s outskirts, though she didn’t know where. At night, all she could hear was barking dogs, not even the call to prayer.

“I was so far away, like I’d fallen off the earth,” she said.

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