Friday August 18, 2017

Outspoken Yemeni activist Hisham Al-Omeisy abducted and detained by Houthi forces

Yemeni activist Hisham Al-Omeisy has been abducted and the conditions of his detention remain a mystery.

Yemeni activist Hisham Al-Omeisy has been abducted and the conditions of his detention remain a mystery. (Hisham Al-Omeisy/Twitter)

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It's been called the forgotten war.

But Hisham Al-Omeisy tried to make the international community remember there is a war going on in Yemen. Now, friends of the outspoken Yemeni activist say he has been abducted and held without charge since Aug. 14.

He has been on As It Happens a number of times to talk about the war's impact on civilians. In April, Al-Omeisy spoke with host Carol Off about the famine declared in Yemen.

Iona Craig is a journalist and a friend of Al-Omeisy. As It Happens guest host Mike Finnerty spoke with Craig about Al-Omeisy's abduction.

Here is part of their conversation.

Iona Craig, when did you first hear about Hisham's disappearance?

I heard about it on the day actually, on Aug. 14, that he'd been taken, essentially off the street, when he was driving through part of Sanaa, near his home. He was pulled over by three vehicles filled with armed men. It wasn't clear at that stage who they were but he was taken away by those men along with his driver. And it later transpired, his family was informed that he was arrested, essentially, by the National Security Bureau, which is one of Yemen's intelligence agencies.

So what do we know about who has him and where he is?

The National Security Bureau is controlled jointly by the Houthis, who are in control of the capital, Sanaa, along with those loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. They have a facility that includes a prison in the capital, Sanaa. It's not a hundred per cent clear that he's being held in that facility but we do know that he is being held by the NSB, so I think it can be assumed that he is in that facility. The NSB have a reputation for not treating their prisoners well. They are known for beating and torturing prisoners so that's the serious concern at the moment — it's for Hisham's welfare.

Is there any indication, based on past experience, how long they tend to hold people that they may be mistreating or intimidating, or for whatever reason they are holding them?

No. It tends to be indefinite, really. Certainly since the civil war has begun, often particularly with somebody who is high profile and well-known like Hisham, their detention can become very politicised and they are used as a kind of bargaining chip in negotiations. So yes, the concern is that he may held for a long time, for many months, before he is released.

His last tweet from Aug. 12 says, "Armed goons backed by corrupt officials are forcefully taking real estate properties in Sanaa. They just showed up at my door." Now, is that a reference to the same people?

We don't know that but that's a classic tweet from Hisham. That would be considered quite a dangerous thing to make a statement about in Yemen at the moment if that happened to you. It's not clear but it could be those two events are connected.

What other motivations might there be behind it?

Well, I mean, I know Hisham — he told me himself — had been interrogated by the Houthi-Saleh forces before and that's because he is very outspoken. There's a general sense of paranoia in Sana'a anyway. Anybody who speaks out, particularly to the international media, as Hisham has done, and is an English speaker, there's a lot of suspicion. People are very quick to accuse people of being spies. Most activists and even independent journalists left any of the territory that was controlled by the Houthis because they were being persecuted.

So Hisham has been treading a very fine line over the last two years. He's been very well aware of that and there was always a lot of concern that this would happen to him. I used to check in with him on a regular basis when I hadn't seen he had been posting on social media for a few days just to make sure that he was okay. He would do the same to me because anyone who is trying to work in Yemen or operate in Yemen and is outspoken these days is at risk. But of course, Hisham was forcing that risk every day and was being incredibly brave doing what he was doing because he'd been critical of the Houthi-Saleh forces as well as being critical of the Saudi-led coalition and that was always going to be a risk for him.

What's the significance of losing his voice at this point?

Hisham was one of very few people who stuck around in Sanaa to speak out and continue giving a voice to all Yemenis, really, on all sides of the conflict. He was very good at providing analysis as well as just giving a very human side and betrayal of the war. He regularly posted pictures on social media on what life was like for him and his family and the struggles they faced during the time of conflict. And really he was providing a window, a very rare window, into that life on a daily basis for the English-speaking world.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Iona Craig.