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Houthi kidnappings post-Arab Spring: the story of Dr. Al Guneid

January 16, 2016 at 12:19 pm

The Arab Spring has brought the plight of many new tribes, religions and even ethnic groups to the discussion platforms of Middle Eastern and North African politics. In Yemen, one of them is the Houthis, a tribe based in Saada, north eastern Yemen. During the Arab Spring, many Yemenis and non-Yemeni observers refused to look at the Houthis’ history in their home province and began to believe that they had a genuine concern for their country and the corruption issues that lay therein. Even after they took over Sana’a in 2014, there were some, many of whom were supporters of ex-president Saleh, who celebrated the coup against newly elected President Hadi. Some supported them for political reasons or out of tribal loyalty, others supported them because they genuinely believed the Houthis had the interest of the nation at heart. Since then, they have allied with the ex-president Saleh to overthrow the government and have shelled civilians, imposed a siege on a city that Saleh has particular vengeful feelings towards, and have displaced many in the process. Kidnappings have also risen. Some are conducted to make a political statement, some have forced children to fight, and others have targeted social justice activists using social media.

Kidnappings in Yemen have risen drastically since 2011, according to a Safer Yemen report. Generally there are three types of kidnappings in Yemen: tribal, political and criminal. They mainly happen in rural areas, or tourist hotspots when groups want to make political statements by kidnapping foreign nationals. Tribal kidnappings are often the result of tribal disputes which tend to be rooted in social and historical issues or can even result from a business deal going wrong. They’re seen as absolute last resorts and generally speaking, the captive person is treated well. Political and criminal kidnappings are however harsher in their nature and are less likely to have a specific target. A tourist could be randomly kidnapped as a way to pressure the government, for example. In tribal and political kidnappings, it would have been rare for women to be harmed or threatened, but this culture has been shifted by the Houthis.

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Since the Saudi-led airstrikes, the Houthis despotic nature has increased and they have been exceptionally cruel to anyone opposing them. Activists on social media have been a specific target. One in particular, Dr. Abdulkader Al Guneid, a prominent English speaking voice from Taiz, was highlighting Houthi crimes early on, well before they became well known internationally. He did so with such wit and charm that he became not only known as an on the ground informer, but became a friend to many. Dr Al Guneid is a medical doctor, who used to be a volunteer lecturer at Taiz Medical School and used to provide free medical care for people in rural areas.

“He’s kind. Very well spoken, he’s very well respected and respects everyone else in return,” his son Ahmad Al Guneid told me. Many others describe him as the one who kept the movement together on social media. He was the type of person who kept everyone united and organised. He also translated from local news sources in an attempt to reach out to a more global audience.

On 5 August 2015, he was kidnapped. From what was immediately apparent, he tweeted that the Houthis broke into his house. His son told me that Dr. Al Guneid was at home at the time, only accompanied by his wife, when armed men dressed in civilian clothes broke into the house. They then abducted him using physical force and threatened his wife. They also looted the house. “They stole valuable items and some of it was from the legacy of our great grandfather, which still means a lot to our family. They also stole money, one laptop and three mobiles,” his son said. “They even threatened my mother if she doesn’t co-operate with them.” They then put him a car and he has not been seen by his family since.

Led by Dr. Al Guneid’s daughter Nagwan and other prominent Yemeni activists, a twitter campaign started immediately under the #FreeGuneid. This campaign went viral and caught the attention of many western online media outlets. When I asked Ahmad if they had tried to deal directly with the Houthis, he said: “We tried a lot of times, but nothing worked.” This does not come as a surprise because the Houthis are well known for viewing diplomatic measures as a sign of weakness. They are well known for their general tendency of not being good negotiators and meeting demands through intimidation and force.

Dr. Al Guneid remains one of the most prominent examples of the persecution of intellectuals and nationalists by the Houthi and Saleh militias. His social media presence was not only strong and reputable, but also very passionate. It’s important to remember that he is one of many who have been persecuted for expressing their opinions and for speaking against Houthi/Saleh crimes in their area. His son requested that the international community does not give up and to keep the campaign alive. This is not only imperative for Dr. Al Guneid and his family, but also for all Yemenis who have been punished for speaking against injustice and against the counter-revolution movement that took full force when the Houthis took over Sana’a in September 2014.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.