Yemeni journalists tortured and sentenced to death in 'illegal' Houthi court

Government condemns treatment and calls on UN to intervene

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2020 file photo, Houthi rebel fighters display their weapons during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen.  (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
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A lawyer for four Yemeni journalists sentenced to death by Houthi rebels on Saturday described how they were subjected to torture and abuse in custody.

Abdulmajeed Sabra, who represents the men, told The National that they were barred from the court in January despite repeated pleas to be allowed to present their defence.

"My defendants were exposed to torture and mistreatment in the prison," Mr Sabra said.

"Some are sick due to the brutal torture they were exposed to."

He said they repeatedly asked the rebels for treatment but were ignored.

The Sanaa court on Saturday sentenced journalists Abdelkhaleq Omran, Akram Al Walidi, Harith Hamid and Tawfiq Al Mansouri to death for "treason and spying for foreign states", judicial officials said.

The move was condemned by the internationally recognised government.

"We strongly condemn the illegal death sentences and minimum standard of justice and integrity," Yemen's Information Minister, Muammar Al Eryani, wrote on Twitter.

Mohammed Askar, the Minister for Human Rights, called on the UN to intervene.

"The Houthi act is an escalatory step towards undermining the UN efforts regarding the prisoner swap deal agreed on in Jordan," Mr Askar told The National.

The rebels and the government are finalising a deal to exchange thousands of political prisoners held by the Houthis in exchange for hundreds of their fighters.

Deputy human rights minister Majed Fadhel, who is a member in the government committee negotiating the prisoner swap, said the four men were on the government list of detainees to be released.

"This new act against the journalists proves that the Houthi rebels are not serious in implementing the prisoner swap deal and indicates that the Yemenis' lives don't matter for them," Mr Fadhel said.

The Iran-backed Houthis seized the capital Sanaa from government forces in 2014, prompting a Saudi-led military intervention the following year.

The war has killed tens of thousands and plunged the Arab world's poorest country into what the UN calls the worst humanitarian disaster globally.

Amnesty International says the rebels are holding 10 journalists in detention since 2015.

In a report last month, the rights watchdog criticised the rebels' Specialised Criminal Court, which issued Saturday's ruling.

It said the four and six others had been prosecuted for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

"Journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents and members of religious minorities are among those subjected to unfair trial on spurious or trumped-up charges by this court," Amnesty said.

It said accusations of spying carried mandatory death sentences under Yemeni law.

Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral ceasefire and more than $500 million (Dh1.83 billion) in aid last week to try to ease the situation in the country as the first case of coronavirus was reported.

After years of fighting, the country's health system is woefully unprepared to handle an outbreak of the virus.

Thousands have died in recent years from cholera and other communicable diseases.

additional reporting by agencies