Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and 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. Rebel actors did not respect the rights as provided, 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 and Coalition and Houthi forces.
On March 4, the Houthis released two journalists after almost two years of detention. According to the National Organization of Yemeni Media, 14 others remain detained in Houthi-run prisons.
Press and Media Freedom: 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.
In July the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YJS) announced it had recorded 100 cases of media freedom violations during the first half of the year, including threats of kidnapping, arrest, torture, blocking of news sites, and suspension of salaries, among other threats. According to YJS, the ROYG committed 47 alleged abuses either in government buildings or on security bases, and 39 were committed by the Houthis, six by the Coalition, and eight by unknown individuals.
Violence and Harassment: Progovernment popular resistance forces, Houthis, and tribal militias were responsible for a range of abuses against media outlets. For example, progovernment forces, including Security Belt and Hadrami forces, harassed media and monitors by raiding civil society organizations, and detaining peaceful journalists and demonstrators for publicizing complaints about detention practices and military operations. CPJ reported an armed raid in March 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 CPJ the attackers arrived in vehicles and wore uniforms consistent with the “Security Belt” forces that operate in and around Aden. Three weeks later, seven Akhbar al-Youm staff were abducted from the same location.
Houthi militias and forces loyal to Saleh were responsible for a campaign of violence and harassment against journalists, according to Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists. The government was unable to take any substantive steps to protect journalists from violence and harassment.
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. According to HRW, authorities frequently compelled detainees to sign contracts promising not to affiliate themselves with groups their captors saw as opposed to Houthi movement.
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 Houthi-controlled Ministry of Telecommunications and internet service providers reportedly blocked websites and domains that authorities deemed critical of the Houthi agenda. UNOHCHR reported that 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.”
Nongovernmental Impact: International media and human rights organizations have said that their personnel were unable to obtain Coalition permission to use United Nations flights into and out of Sana’a since early 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. UNOHCHR reported Houthi forces raided or closed the premises of a large number of civil society organizations and frozen the assets, including bank accounts, of at least two NGOs.
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.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 27 percent of the population used the internet during the year, while 6 percent had internet access at home.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
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.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
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.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
While the law provides for freedom of association, there were reports Houthis harassed and shut down NGOs. 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.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In 2016 the Coalition closed Sana’a International Airport to commercial traffic, permitting only UN humanitarian flights and thereby preventing thousands of local citizens from seeking medical care abroad. Those who need to leave the country attempt alternative routes that require long journeys across active front lines at high risk and cost.
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, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The Houthi takeover, Coalition airstrikes, and the Hudaydah offensive, however, made it difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach many areas of the country due to security concerns. The ROYG did not enforce the law, even in government-controlled areas, due to capacity and governance issues.
According to UNHCR, the country’s laws and policies were consistent with international standards, but authorities’ capacity to protect and assist persons in need was limited. The Houthis imposed ad hoc and unpredictable requirements on humanitarian organizations throughout the year, such as visa restrictions and checkpoints, making implementation of humanitarian programs difficult in areas under their control.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In past years, multiple NGOs reported that criminal smuggling groups built a large number of “camps” near the Yemen-Saudi border city of Haradh, where militants held migrants for extortion and ransom.
UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other partners continued to face challenges accessing detention centers. UNHCR and IOM negotiated with relevant ministries to find alternative means to monitor refugees and asylum seekers in detention.
IOM recorded more than 50,000 new arrivals of migrants and refugees to the country in the first half of the year. The IOM reported that both the government and Houthis detained migrants due to concerns that they could be recruited by the other party. While the government was able to deport migrants back to their country of origin, the Houthis generally detained migrants for indefinite periods. IOM worked with the Houthis to assist the migrants while in detention. Separately, UNHCR and IOM worked together to provide assisted voluntary returns for migrants and assisted spontaneous returns for Somali refugees. As of October 18, UNHCR and IOM had helped more than 2,600 refugees and migrants to return to the Horn of Africa since the program began in September 2017.
In April HRW reported that government officials tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa at the Bureiqa detention center in the southern port city of Aden. The authorities denied asylum seekers an opportunity to seek refugee protection and deported migrants en masse to dangerous conditions at sea. As of April approximately 90, primarily Eritrean, migrants remained in the country.
Houthi armed groups also arbitrarily detained 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. Early in the year, at least one group of migrants–87 individuals, including seven children–held in the Hudaydah facility by Houthi forces were released on condition they travel to Aden. Yemeni soldiers stopped the group along the way and reportedly took them to the Bureiqa detention facility in Aden.
In-country Movement: Rebel forces, resistance forces, security forces, and tribesmen 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. 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 (see section 6, Women) men at checkpoints increasingly insisted on adherence to the “mahram” system, the cultural obligation of women to be accompanied by male relatives in public.
Authorities required travel permits for all non-Yemeni nationals leaving Sana’a.
Local observers reported that Yemenis from Houthi-controlled areas faced increasing discrimination and difficulties when traveling in the southern portion of the country.
Foreign Travel: 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 authorities enforcing this requirement during the year. There were attempts, however, by 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).
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
According to UNHCR’s Fact Sheet for October, there were approximately two million IDPs, of whom 89 percent were displaced for more than one year. There were approximately one million IDP returnees. The government’s IDP registration system has been on pause since the escalation of the conflict in 2015.
Humanitarian organizations’ access to IDPs 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 in Sana’a with food, shelter, and nonfood items. IDPs from Sa’ada reported limited access to cash for purchasing basic household items.
Humanitarian organizations reported that parties to the conflict interfered with the distribution of humanitarian goods. Houthi forces conducted armed robberies and stole vehicles throughout the year, yet this type of limitation generally occurred in conflict hotspots and represented a small fraction of overall aid. Due to general insecurity, humanitarian organizations’ access to populations of concern was restricted and somewhat unpredictable. According to the United Nations, there were 22.2 million individuals in need.
There was a marked increase in food insecurity throughout the country, and rates of acute malnutrition were high among IDPs and other vulnerable groups (see section 1.g.). According to Save the Children, 64.5 percent of total population was food insecure, 8.4 million were on brink of starvation, and half of all children in the country were stunted. An estimated 400,000 children were malnourished.
IOM reported that 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 Taizz and Lahj. As of September UNHCR provided core relief items to 383,549 IDP individuals, emergency shelter kits to 59,882 individuals, and rental subsidies for 108,396 individuals. In January UNHCR finalized the construction of 1,700 transitional shelters for IDP families, with 3,200 under construction in Hajjah at year’s end. UNHCR provided 27,767 core relief item kits and 4,430 emergency shelter kits to assist families displaced by fighting in al-Hudaydah by the end of September.
The Saudi government-run King Salman Relief Agency set up a temporary camp in September in al-Khawkha to shelter IDPs fleeing al-Hudaydah and supply them with water tanks, mobile clinics and shelter materials, including camps and blankets. The camp could accommodate 420 IDPs and plans to expand operations to eventually benefit 30,000 IDPs.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
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 shared in the general poverty and insecurity of the country.
According to UNHCR’s September Fact Sheet, there were more than 280,000 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 IOM. Due to the fighting, many left Aden and 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 facing physical and sexual abuse as well as torture and forced labor, in both Houthi and ROYG controlled facilities, and that many refugees were susceptible to trafficking.
Refoulement: Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somali detainees of the Bureiqa migrant detention center near Aden alleged they were not allowed to claim refugee status in Yemen and that hundreds of fellow detainees were sent back out to sea in overloaded boats. 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 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 Yemen in territory under government control, in coordination with the government.
Freedom of Movement: Freedom of movement remained difficult for all in the country, including refugees, given the damage to roads, bridges, and 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 caused unnecessary delays or blocked the movement of individuals or goods.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees lacked access to basic services due to the ongoing conflict. The United Nations estimated that only about 55 percent of 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.