An obscure prison economy has flourished since the Houthis came to power in late 2014
War economy flourishing behind the walls of Houthis detention centers
At the end of 2018, Mohammed Ahmed Al-Sabri was smuggled out of a prison in Dhamar governorate after paying 4 million Yemeni riyals (about $8,000 at the time*) to influential Houthis. He had already spent nearly 5 million riyals ($10,000) in ransom payments for unfulfilled promises of his release.
The details of Al-Sabri’s story shed light on the obscure prison economy that has flourished in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen since the armed movement seized control of the capital Sana’a in a coup. The unlawful arrest and imprisonment of thousands of civilians has become a lucrative source of income for a powerful network of Houthi officials and loyalists who use their influence over the vast, unofficial detention system to extort cash, cars, jewelry and other valuables from desperate relatives and friends seeking the release of their loved ones.
Al-Sabri’s relatives, including his mother who died before his release, transferred multiple payments amounting to 5 million riyals to Houthi authorities known as “supervisors.” Supervisors are senior Houthi officials appointed to oversee a particular department, institution or geographical area on behalf of the rebel government. They are typically selected on the basis of loyalty to the Houthi movement rather than qualifications for the assigned post and often enjoy immunity from crimes they may commit in the course of their work. As the war has progressed, the title of supervisor has been more widely adopted to include virtually any influential Houthi figure.
After pocketing the 5 million riyals from Al-Sabri’s relatives, the supervisors turned off their phones and disappeared. Al-Sabri tried to track them down but had few leads to follow. Like all supervisors, the men used nicknames to conceal their identities. When he approached people who were likely to know the identities of the supervisors, Al-Sabri was told that they had never heard of them or they had died on the battlefront.
On the eve of his release, Al-Sabri paid another 4 million riyals to a different set of Houthi supervisors whose nicknames were Abu Jannat and Abu Ismail, meaning ather of Jannat and Father of Ismail. Another supervisor, known as Abu Ali, forced Al-Sabri to sign a waiver forfeiting his car, a 2007 Hyundai Elantra, to the men to ensure his immediate release. In the middle of the night, during Ramadan in 2018, they drove Al-Sabri to Kamaran junction in Dhamar city and left him in the street.
Rights and privileges have a price
Over the course of his detention, Al-Sabri managed to create an influential network of contacts that included senior supervisors, influential Houthis who administered the detention center, ward guards and their superiors. He built the network with cash payments.
The money bestowed upon everyone around him gave Al-Sabri privileges that were rarely enjoyed by others. Eventually, the Houthis appointed Al-Sabri as an “Aqil,” a position of authority that allowed him to manage the affairs of other prisoners. He was allowed to make phone calls and leave the detention center whenever he wanted to pick up money transfers from family and friends, or receive transfers on behalf of other prisoners.
With the many relationships he established through generous payments, Al-Sabri’s requests were granted by the prison administration. "I could have gone out to meet my relatives or friends outside the prison, and I went more than once to the park, and was taken for treatment in a private hospital,” he said. “I paid the guards and supervisors more money than the cost of my treatment."
Of course, he couldn’t leave the prison without an armed escort to ensure he wouldn’t escape. But while he was enjoying these extravagant privileges, most of his fellow detainees did not see the sun for months, Al-Sabri said.
Al-Sabri was arrested in the city of Taiz on October 27, 2015, on allegations that he was associated with the leadership of the popular resistance that confronted the Houthis in the early months of the war. In fact, he was a prominent official in the Taiz branch of the government-run mobile phone company, Yemen Mobile.
After several days in a detention center in the Bir Basha area in the western part of Taiz city, Al-Sabri was transferred to Al-Saleh prison, a sprawling complex of residential apartments taken over by Houthi authorities and converted in part into holding facilities. From there, guards transferred him to Dhamar Community College, which Houthi forces converted into a prison and was later targeted by Saudi air strikes.
In Al-Saleh detention center, Al-Sabri made calls to some of his relatives and friends from mobile phones belonging to Houthi supervisors. He later learned that some of those supervisors had called back his friends and family and asked them to transfer more money, which never reached Al-Sabri.
While the generous bribes he paid to authorities helped secure certain privileges, they did not shield him from all of the harsh realities of the prison. Broken teeth, cigarette burns and scars all over his body are reminders of the torture he endured.
Among the group of detainees who were released by paying money to Houthi mediators or supervisors spoke with Almasdar Online, Al-Sabri was the only one who agreed to disclose his name. The others asked to remain anonymous to protect themselves and their relatives who still live in Houthi-controlled areas from retribution. Other former detainees categorically refused to tell their stories for this report, out of fear of what Houthi authorities would do if they found out.
A systematic campaign of random arrests
Houthi forces have arrested scores of civilians from security checkpoints, markets and other public spaces in various Yemeni cities for no reason. Sometimes they fabricate reasons after searching the phones and social media applications of the civilians.
Those arrested without charges are kept outside the formal justice system, in order to conceal the illegality of their detention. They are sometimes released after a few months by committees formed by the Houthi government which arrange “guarantees” through a Houthi supervisor. Before the war, such guarantees took the form of commercial or social bonds, in which a business or influential figure such as a tribal sheikh would vouch for the person who was essentially being bailed out of jail. If the person failed to comply with the conditions of the bail, such as appearing at future court dates, then the business or influential social figure would pay the penalties.
However, because many of those detained by the Houthis are kept outside of the formal justice system, there are no court proceedings to attend. The payment of Houthi supervisors for early release is akin to state-sanctioned extortion. Oftentimes, the people who reach out to the supervisors to secure the release of a relative often find themselves the target of fabricated allegations. The only way to escape these accusations is to bribe the supervisors or their brokers with more money.
While the author of this report was detained in Al-Saleh prison in mid-2018, he met a young Houthi loyalist named Abu Majed who had been injured in the leg on one of the battlefronts. Following treatment, he was allowed to recover in one of the apartments in the Al-Saleh residential complex that wasn’t being used for detention. At some point, he was approached by the relative of someone who had been imprisoned there by the Houthis. The relative gave Abu Majed 60,000 riyals to search for a Houthi supervisor who could provide a guarantee for the prisoner’s release. Before he could find a Houthi supervisor, Abu Majd was summoned and interrogated by a Houthi official, who told him to hand over the 60,000 riyals and pledge to not repeat this action.
While telling the story, Abu Majed smiled sarcastically. The official who took the money from him put it in his pocket and did not ask who it should be returned to. While lecturing Abu Majed that he did not live up to the morals of the "loyal mujahideen," the official informed him that he would go to prison to "cleanse him of sins." However, the sentence would only amount to a few days, the official explained, due to his service as a "jihadist."
When the author left the prison, Abu Majd had been detained for seven months. Prison officials informed him that he would only be released under the guarantee of a supervisor. In order to secure such a guarantee, Abu Majed would have to find a mediator to get the job done, and of course pay money.
There appears to be no constant in the Houthis’ dealings with detainees. Nor is there a specific rule that can be cited as the best way to improve the detention conditions or speed up the release of a loved one. Rather than evidence and laws, the arrests of civilians seem to be governed by the mood of the individuals carrying them out, or as a way to intimidate opponents and society in general to submit to Houthi rule.
Former detainees and those who pushed for their release are divided over how to approach the issue. Some believe that generous payments and regular follow-up on the welfare of a detainee helps secure their early release, while neglect and refusal to pay bribes reduces their chances of freedom. Others argue that payments and diligent follow-up incentivize supervisors, mediators and brokers to prolong a detainee’s detention in order to continue profiting from the extortion, while ignoring the detainee makes the Houthis feel like he is a liability and decide to release him.
Everything has a price
Hatem (pseudonym), a neighborhood official known as an Aqil in the Hasabah neighborhood of Sana'a, told Almasdar Online that Aqils have two main forms of income under Houthi rule: following up on prisoners, and collecting royalties from shops.
“Many of the civilians that are arrested are innocent of any known crime, but Houthi leaders single them out with the aim of obtaining money,” Hatem said. "The Aqils of the neighborhoods look at each case as an opportunity to profit, although there are heart-rending stories that make you want to eat dirt rather than gain a single penny from this source."
One of roles Aqils play in the extortion scheme that has emerged under Houthi rule is to collect daily sums of money from detainees’ families to secure a steady supply of qat, food, blankets, medicine and communication with the prisoner. If the detainee is a child, Aqils seek payment to arrange for his release, isolate him from adult prisoners or move him to a facility with children his own age.
Some Aqils prolong such cases in order to continue exploiting the families, Hatem said, but their earnings pale in comparison to what the supervisors make. Realizing the potential profits involved in imprisoning people, Houthi supervisors started to invent accusations, threatening families that they will transfer their loved ones to the Central Prison in Sana’a or other detention centers run by intelligence agencies, from which it is much more difficult to secure their release, Hatem said.
“We as Aqils take only the leftovers,” Hatem said. “The big guys (supervisors) have turned it into a profitable career.”
One family sold their gold jewelry to pay for the release of their detained son, Hatem said, adding that “threats to families sometimes reach outrageous levels that I am ashamed to talk about."
In another example, Hatem tells the story of a successful restaurant owner who was ordered by the district supervisor to pay large sums of money for Houthi initiatives, including the annual celebration of the prophet’s birthday, assisting the families of martyrs, or funding the battlefronts. On one occasion, the restaurateur hesitated so the supervisor placed him in prison. He was not released until he paid 5 million riyals ($10,000) as a lesson for him and others. Now he pays them for what they ask without question, Hatem said.
From ordinary citizens to neighborhood Aqil, mediators, dignitaries and senior government leaders, anyone who has influence with Houthi supervisors has a role and every service has a price in the prison economy.
Guarantees without guarantees
Just as there is no fixed or specific rule governing Houthi dealings in detention facilities, there is no way to verify the commitment of mediators, brokers or others who seek payment for the release of detainees. There are often no legal or customary documents showing the course of the case or who was involved in it. In many cases, the middlemen tell the families that they are following up when they have done nothing.
When Adel (pseudonym) was arrested in early 2019 from a checkpoint in Al-Hawban area in Taiz governorate, following the inspection of social media apps on his phone, he was placed in a temporary detention room next to the checkpoint. He informed the security forces of his work in the office of a licensed international relief organization, which prompted accusations of being a spy.
In the detention room, a Houthi supervisor known as Abu Hani told Adel that he was trying to help release him before Houthi intelligence agents transferred him to Al-Saleh prison. Thirty minutes later, a man who claimed to be an investigator asked Adel a series of questions, including about his relationship with Saudi-led coalition countries and the distribution of expired aid.
The supervisor returned to inform Adel that his situation was difficult and requested that he pay the investigator. Adel handed over 80,000 rials, which the supervisor took and then disappeared. Adel was then transferred to Al-Saleh detention camp.
Adel inquired about his case after a month-and-a-half inside the prison without an interrogation. The guards claimed to know nothing about his case and promised to look into it. Unbeknownst to Adel, his family had paid more than 1.2 million riyals to mediators and brokers claiming to be working on his release.
Adel said he received no benefits from the payments. After about eight months, he was finally released along with five others in his cell who were not informed of the reasons for their arrests either. All of them spent between six months and one year in Al-Saleh prison.
Days after his release, Adel was approached by one of the mediators whose Adel’s family had already paid. The mediator demanded more money, claiming that he was the one who ultimately secured Adel’s release. Although he realized that the man was probably lying, he paid him 150,000 riyals in the hope that he would not be harassed or summoned again.
Civilians as poker chips and bargaining chips
The Houthis arrest civilians for military, political and economic gains, Abdulwahid Al-Oubali, an economics researcher, told Almasdar Online. On the battlefield, civilian detainees are used as bargaining chips for the release of captured Houthi forces. The same approach is used to gain leverage in political negotiations. Ransom demands sometimes accompany prisoner exchanges and political negotiations. For the Houthi supervisor, and the army of mediators, brokers and others who claim to have access to the supervisor, the arrest of innocent civilians is a massive source of revenue, he said.
After the arrest, the civilian is hidden from his family for a period of time. Then suddenly the brokers appear as saviors who possess the necessary connections and influence with the Houthi supervisors to secure a guarantee. Then begins the bargaining and extortion with the aim of release, in addition to demands for money to pay for food, supplies, or perhaps a visit to the detainee.
Considering that thousands of detainees are held in Houthi prisons and detention centers on a daily basis, the sums flowing to Houthi supervisors, Aqils and their networks are enormous, he said.
A thriving prisoner economy
The Houthis deny that money has been extorted from prisoners in an organized manner.
But the growing body of testimony from former prisoners, the friends and relatives who worked to secure their release, as well individuals benefiting from the scheme paints the picture of a thriving prison economy that has prospered at all levels under Houthi. Scores of individuals make their living, if not reap huge profits, on payments from the detainees or their families. Payments are demanded for an increasing number of services, including following up on a detainee’s case, bonding a detainee, bringing them food and medicine, arranging phone calls or in-person visits and limiting torture of the prisoner. In many cases, people pay Houthi supervisors so that they will not be arrested in the first place.
Khaled (pseudonym) paid 500,000 riyals to Houthi supervisors and mediators in exchange for his release on the night of his arrest. He was arrested by Houthi loyalists outside a mosque in Sana'a after objecting to what he described as militant practices taking place inside the building. He was then taken to a police station in Sana'a, from which he managed to contact relatives and others, who searched for mediators and intensified efforts for his release. They paid half a million riyals to a set of brokers who helped secure Khaled’s release the same night.
Afraid of further inquiries about him and his previous job in a government sector, Khaled left Sana'a and settled in Ma'rib, to ensure his safety.
*Currency conversions in this article assume an exchange rate of 500 Yemeni riyals per $1, although the rate has fluctuated considerably throughout the war. In late 2014, the rate was 250 riyals per $1. At the time of publication, in Houthi-controlled areas, the exchange rate is about 700 riyals per $1.