Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press “within the limits of the law,” the Press and Publications Law calls for journalists to uphold national unity and prohibits criticism of the head of state. The Houthis did not respect the rights as provided in the constitution, and the government was unable to enforce them.
Freedom of Expression: All parties to the conflict severely restricted the right to freedom of expression, and female human rights defenders, journalists, and activists faced specific repression on the basis of gender. Local human rights defenders faced harassment, threats, and smear campaigns from the government, Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi forces. In multiple instances Houthis went to the homes of activists, journalists, and political leaders opposed to the Houthis and used the threat of arrest and other means to intimidate perceived opponents and to silence dissent.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Prior to the outbreak of conflict, the transitional government approved legislation to regulate broadcasting and television channels. A number of domestic private stations operated under media production company permits, and several stations broadcast from abroad for domestic audiences.
Violence and Harassment: The government was unable to take any substantive steps to protect journalists from violence and harassment. Progovernment popular resistance forces, Houthis, and tribal militias were responsible for a range of abuses against media outlets.
In May, Amnesty International reported the Houthis had detained 10 journalists since 2015 on false charges, and subjected the journalists to torture and other forms of abuse.
In August the CPJ documented that military authorities detained three journalists, Munir Talal, Mahfouz al-Baaithi, and Yahya al-Baaithi, at a hotel in the city of Taiz, accusing them of belonging to a militia. Authorities released them after making them pledge not to write or publish anything on their detention.
Progovernment forces, including Security Belt and Hadrami forces, harassed media and monitors by raiding civil society organizations, and detaining journalists and demonstrators for publicizing complaints about detention practices and military operations. The CPJ reported in 2018 an armed raid in March of that year on the offices of al-Shomou Foundation, believed to be pro-ROYG. The men set fire to the presses used to print the weekly al-Shomou and daily Akhbar al-Youm newspapers. The president of al-Shomou Foundation told the CPJ the attackers arrived in vehicles and wore uniforms consistent with the Security Belt forces that operate in and around Aden. Three weeks later, Security Belt forces abducted seven Akhbar al-Youm staff from the same location and released them after one month.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Houthis controlled several state ministries responsible for press and communications, including the Ministry of Telecommunications. In that capacity they selected items for formerly government-run broadcast and print media and did not allow reports critical of themselves. The Ministry of Telecommunications and internet service providers reportedly blocked websites and domains authorities deemed critical of the Houthi agenda. OHCHR reported Houthi forces censored television channels and banned newspapers from publication.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes criticism of the “person of the head of state;” the publication of “false information” that may spread “dissent and division among the people;” materials that may lead to “the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni revolution;” and “false stories intended to damage Arab and friendly countries or their relations.” There was no information during the year whether the ROYG or the Houthis used these laws to restrict public discussion or retaliate against journalists or political opponents.
Nongovernmental Impact: International media and human rights organizations said their personnel were unable to obtain coalition permission to use UN flights into and out of Sana’a since 2017. Independent observers must take commercial flights to government-controlled areas in the south and then travel by land across dangerous front lines to other areas. See section 1.g. for reports of abductions of journalists by unidentified armed men.
Censorship affected internet freedom, and there were notable cases of Houthi intrusion into cyberspace. The Houthi-controlled Public Telecommunications Corporation systematically blocked user access to websites and internet domains it deemed dangerous to the rebel actors’ political agenda.
The NSB maintained permanent offices on campuses, reflecting continued government concern about security and, in some cases, controversial speech. Party-affiliated officials at the Ministry of Higher Education and academic institutions reviewed prospective university professors and administrators for political acceptability before hiring them and commonly showed favoritism toward supporters of specific political parties. There were no reported instances of censored curriculums or sanctioned professors or students; however, after their takeover, Houthi and other actors’ incursions onto campuses and detentions of academics appeared designed to intimidate them as perceived opponents.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these rights were not respected in the majority of the country, i.e., areas which the government did not control.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly. The Houthis and their affiliates responded to demonstrations and protests in various parts of the country with excessive force.
While the law provides for freedom of association, there were reports Houthis harassed and shut down NGOs. Houthi authorities closed numerous NGOs during the year without proper due process, citing treason or conspiring with foreign powers. Houthi authorities created a new body known as the “Executive Office for Monitoring Operations of International Organizations” that oversees the work of NGOs, reportedly polices NGO activity, and has arbitrary detained activists and shut down NGOs in Houthi-controlled areas.
The law regulates associations and foundations and outlines the establishment and activities of NGOs. Authorities required annual registration. The law exempts registered NGOs from taxes and tariffs and requires the government to provide a reason for denying an NGO registration, such as deeming an NGO’s activities “detrimental” to the state. It forbids NGO involvement in political or religious activities. It permits foreign funding of NGOs. The law requires government observation of NGO internal elections. There were no known attempts by NGOs to register during the year.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: Rebel forces, resistance forces, security forces, and tribes maintained checkpoints on major roads. In many regions, especially in areas outside effective central security control, armed tribesmen frequently restricted freedom of movement, operating their own checkpoints, sometimes with military or other security officials, and often subjected travelers to physical harassment, extortion, theft, or short-term kidnappings for ransom. Damage to roads, bridges, and other infrastructure from the conflict also hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid and commercial shipments (see section 1.g.).
Women in general did not enjoy full freedom of movement, although restrictions varied by location (see section 6, Women). Some observers reported increased restrictions on women in conservative locations, such as Safadi. Oxfam reported that in areas controlled by radical Islamic groups such as AQAP, men at checkpoints increasingly insisted on adherence to the “mahram” system, the cultural obligation of women to be accompanied by male relatives in public.
Local observers reported Yemenis from Houthi-controlled areas faced increasing discrimination and difficulties when traveling in the southern portion of the country.
Foreign Travel: The Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 and the government relocation to Aden in 2015 left no official government authority in control of Sana’a airport customs or immigration functions. In 2016 the coalition closed Sana’a International Airport to commercial traffic, permitting only UN humanitarian flights, thereby preventing thousands of local citizens from traveling abroad. Those who needed to leave the country attempt alternative routes that require long journeys across active front lines at high risk and cost.
In the past women needed the permission of a male guardian, such as a husband, before applying for a passport or leaving the country. A husband or male relative could bar a woman from leaving the country by placing a woman’s name on a “no-fly list” maintained at airports. Prior to the conflict, authorities strictly enforced this requirement when women traveled with children, but there were no reports of government authorities enforcing this requirement during the year. There were attempts, however, by the Houthis to impose similar restrictions on women’s international travel. Given the deterioration of infrastructure and lack of security due to the conflict, many women reportedly declined to travel alone (see section 6, Women).
Prior to 2014 the transitional government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees (see section 2.f.), returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
The Houthi takeover, coalition airstrikes, and active fighting made it difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach many areas of the country due to security concerns (see section 1.g. Other Conflict-related Abuse).
According to UNHCR’s November 8 operational update, there were approximately 3.6 million IDPs, of whom 80 percent were displaced for more than one year, and more than 63,080 were displaced since the beginning of the year. There were approximately 1.28 million IDP returnees. The government’s IDP registration system has been inactive since the escalation of the conflict in 2015.
Humanitarian organizations’ access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations was generally limited and unpredictable due to the continuing conflict; however, many humanitarian organizations maintained a presence in multiple locations throughout the country. According to the United Nations, humanitarian organizations, local NGOs, and charities that still functioned in the capital supported IDPs and other conflict-affected Yemenis in Sana’a and other parts of the country with food, shelter, and nonfood items, among other support. IDPs from Saada reported limited access to cash for purchasing basic household items.
The IOM reported IDPs largely sought refuge with relatives or friends or rented accommodations where many faced frequent threats of eviction due to late payments of rent. Others were housed in unconventional shelters in public or private buildings, such as schools, health facilities, or religious buildings, primarily in Taiz and Lahj. NGOs reported shelter continues to be a primary concern for IDPs. The shifting nature of the conflict displaced many IDPs multiple times as front lines of the conflict change, requiring individuals to seek new shelter with every subsequent displacement. In the first six months of the year, UNHCR and its partners distributed a total of 39,754 basic household items and nonfood-item kits, 10,156 emergency shelter kits, and 513 transitional shelter kits.
OHCHR reported SBF committed rape and other forms of serious sexual violence targeting IDPs (see section 1.c.). The OHCHR condemned retaliatory attacks against and deportations of northerners by the STC in Aden and other southern governorates following the takeover by UAE-funded Security Belt Forces in August.
UNHCR’s Head of Sub Office Aden acknowledged the efforts and hospitality of the government and its people, who have continued to host some 275,000 refugees and asylum-seekers despite the conflict. UNHCR reported more than 97,000 new arrivals of migrants and refugees to the country in the first eight months of the year, marking a 48 percent increase over the previous year, with expectations up to 160,000 could arrive by the end of the year. The IOM estimated 20,000 migrants, a majority of whom were fleeing conflict in the Horn of Africa, traveled by boat to Yemen each month.
The country received refugees from a variety of countries during the conflict. Many refugees became increasingly vulnerable due to the worsening security and economic situation in the country. Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants shared in the general poverty and insecurity of the country.
According to UNHCR’s November Operational Update, there were approximately 276,800 refugees and asylum seekers in the country, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia. Many were attempting to reach or return to Saudi Arabia for work and had entered the country based on false information from smugglers that the conflict in the country was over, according to UNHCR and the IOM. Due to the fighting, many took refuge at the Kharaz camp and towns in the south. The ROYG could not provide physical protection to refugees; many were held in detention centers operated by Houthis in the north and the government in the south. UNHCR claimed there were reports of refugees and migrants facing physical and sexual abuse as well as torture and forced labor, in both Houthi and ROYG-controlled facilities, and that many refugees and migrants were susceptible to trafficking.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: OHCHR reported SBF committed rape and other forms of serious sexual violence targeting foreign migrants and other vulnerable groups (see sections 1.c. and 1.g.).
Multiple NGOs and the media continued to report that criminal smuggling groups built a large number of “camps” near the Yemen-Saudi border city of Haradh and in other parts of the country, where militants held migrants for extortion and ransom.
In August, HRW reported migrants from the Horn of Africa were met and captured by traffickers upon arrival of the former in the country. The report stated five migrants who were interviewed said the traffickers physically assaulted them to extort payments from family members or contacts in Ethiopia or Somalia. While camps where migrants were held were run by Yemenis, Ethiopians often reportedly carried out the abuse. In many cases, relatives said they sold assets such as homes or land to obtain the ransom money. After paying the traffickers or escaping, many migrants claimed to have made their way north to the Saudi-Yemen border, crossing in rural, mountainous areas. The Associated Press reported in October hundreds of migrants were held in deplorable conditions and experienced rape, torture, and other abuse at the hands of smugglers.
Refoulement: Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Somali detainees in the Bureiqa migrant detention center near Aden alleged they were not allowed to claim refugee status and that hundreds of fellow detainees were sent back out to sea in overloaded boats. HRW reported in 2018 these deportations resulted in the deaths of dozens of asylum seekers. Information was not available for deportations during the year.
Access to Asylum: No law addresses the granting of refugee status or asylum, and there was no system for providing protection to asylum seekers. In past years, the government provided automatic refugee status to Somalis who entered the country. The Houthis attempted to take over the refugee status determinations process in areas under their control, leading many refugees to have lapsed documentation. UNHCR was generally able to access populations to provide assistance and was working with the Houthis to come to a resolution on registration of refugees. UNHCR continued to conduct refugee status determination in southern territory under government control, in coordination with the government.
In 2018 numerous first-hand accounts corroborated that asylum seekers who registered with UNHCR as refugees had their documentation confiscated upon arrival to Buraika, according to HRW.
Freedom of Movement: Freedom of movement remained difficult for all in the country, including refugees, given the damage to roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure caused by the conflict. Most of the country’s airports incurred significant damage or were closed to commercial traffic, making travel difficult for all, including refugees. In areas controlled by Houthis unofficial checkpoints blocked or delayed the movement of individuals or goods.
The IOM reported both the ROYG and Houthis detained migrants due to concerns they could be recruited by the other party. UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations continued to face challenges accessing detention centers to monitor detained refugees and asylum seekers.
While the government generally deported migrants back to their country of origin, the Houthis frequently detained migrants for indefinite periods. In April, ROYG authorities began detaining large groups of migrants in Abyan, Aden, and Lahj governorates. At the peak of the campaign, approximately 5,000 migrants, including children and women, were held across three sites unfit to accommodate people, such as conflict-damaged sports stadiums. In coordination with partners, the IOM immediately began an emergency response for those detained, providing food, water supply, latrines, and health care. The IOM began assisting migrants detained in the 22nd of May Stadium to return to Ethiopia under its voluntary returns program, prioritizing women, children, and persons with specific vulnerabilities. Through 22 flights, the IOM returned home 2,742 stranded migrants. As of September the IOM had assisted with more than 3,784 refugee and migrant returns to the Horn of Africa.
During the year Houthi armed groups also continued arbitrarily to detain migrants in poor conditions and failed to provide access to asylum and protection procedures in a facility near the western port of Hudaydah. HRW reported overcrowding, lack of access to medical care, and physical abuse, with detainees showing signs of sores and festering wounds.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees lacked access to basic services due to the ongoing conflict. The United Nations estimated only approximately half of the country’s public-health facilities remained functional during the year. Many were closed due to damage caused by the conflict, some were destroyed, and all facilities faced shortages in supplies, including medications and fuel to run generators.