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The lives of four Yemeni journalists are on the line, but Joe Biden could save them

US President Joe Biden in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 1, 2021 in Washington, DC [Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images]
US President Joe Biden in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on 1 March 2021 in Washington, DC [Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images]

The fate of four Yemeni journalists is in the hands of US President Joe Biden, Dr Khalid Ibrahim and Dr Ikram Ais have told me as they explained the details of their campaign for their release. Ibrahim is the Executive Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, while Ais is Co-Director of Activism at the Harvard Law School's Advocates for Human Rights. They have sent a letter to Biden urging him to call for the immediate release of Abdul Khaleq Amran, Akram Al-Walidi, Al-Hareth Humaid and Tawfiq Al-Mansouri who are facing a death sentence in Houthi-controlled Yemen.

The four were among a group of ten journalists who were arrested by the Houthis in 2015. They were accused of "collaborating with the enemy", a reference to the Saudi-led coalition which had initiated the ongoing war in the country. Their arrest was criticised by Amnesty International, which last year described the charges against the men as "trumped up", adding that the detainees had been beaten, deprived of water and forced to hold cinder blocks for several hours.

The campaign for their release has gathered pace with a critical date looming in May that could seal their fate. Their life now hangs in the balance after the Houthi-controlled Specialised Criminal Court in Sanaa sentenced the four to death in April last year. According to Human Rights Watch, it was an unfair trial based on politically motivated charges of treason and spying for foreign states. The court did not specify when the sentences should be carried out.

At the time, the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm at the judgements and called upon the Houthi authorities to release the prisoners. The committee was told that the death sentence had been handed down in the absence of the journalists' lawyer.

READ: Saudi offers Houthis economic support in exchange for halting attacks on the kingdom

Ibrahim has travelled to Yemen on several occasion to meet with the journalists' families. He insists that the four men were simply doing their job, documenting information and reporting news. The Houthis apparently kidnapped and detained them after they had reported on abuses in Yemen blamed on the group.

Apart from the threat of execution, there are serious concerns about the conditions under which the four men are being held. Three other detainees who were detained and put on trial with them have been released in a prisoner exchange. They told Human Rights Watch that they were held in a freezing, filthy, windowless cell of about six square metres with several other men. "Houthi prisons lack adequate medical care and are poorly managed," Ibrahim told me.

Other journalists who were held in similar prisons reported that they were repeatedly tortured and deprived of food and water. In addition, the four journalists risk exposure to Covid-19. As of today, they have each spent seventy months in a Houthi prison cell.

For two of the prisoners there has been additional heartbreak. The fathers of Al-Mansouri and Humaid were denied the right to visit their sons and died without seeing them. Family members are now pleading with the Houthis to release them before their mothers also pass away. However, despite countless appeals by human rights and media freedom groups in Yemen and abroad to quash the death sentences and release the journalists, the Houthis remain unmoved.

Since taking control of the state capital, Sanaa, and Yemen's other densely populated areas in the north, the Houthis have clamped down on journalists and made it impossible for them to do their job safely. The group's leader, Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, made clear his hostility towards independent media. "Media workers are more dangerous to our country than the traitors and mercenaries of the security forces," he declared in a television interview.

"Journalism should never be a crime," insist Ibrahim and Ais, "much less lead to the death penalty." They warned that the more the West remains silent on these issues the more we will see an increase in authoritarian groups and regimes around the world violating basic freedoms. "This campaign," explained Ais, "is about the restoration of freedom of expression."

READ: Yemen PM visits Hadhramaut for first time since fleeing to Saudi

Time is running out for the four journalists. In February, a court hearing was scheduled at the Specialised Criminal Appeals Court to review their case. The journalists, however, were not taken to the hearing. An official representing the Houthi Secret Services informed the court that they were moved to a different prison pending a prisoner exchange deal with the threat of execution hanging over their heads. Their fate could be decided on 23 May, when another hearing is scheduled.

In their letter to Joe Biden, Dr Khalid Ibrahim and Dr Ikram Ais reminded the US President that he had made human rights a number one priority and that his administration had taken the important step of removing support for the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen. They urged him to intervene on behalf of the four journalists.

"We encourage you to build on this progress by taking action to promote respect for freedom of speech, uphold human rights and contribute to the restoration of peace in Yemen," they wrote. "We believe that your administration is well-placed to make a positive, lasting impact in restoring peace in Yemen and ending this oppressive pattern of speech suppression."

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

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