Rights group denounces Houthi trial of female Yemeni actor

CAIRO (AP) — An international rights group Wednesday accused Yemen’s Houthi rebels of prosecuting a female actor and model on charges of committing an indecent act and drug possession in a case “marred with irregularities and abuse.”

The Iran-backed Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital of Sanaa and much of the country’s north, detained 20-year-old Intisar al-Hammadi in Sanaa in February along with three others she was traveling with, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ten days after her detention, the Houthis said they had arrested al-Hammadi because she was in a car with a man accused of dealing drugs. They confiscated her phone and “her modeling photos were treated like an act of indecency and therefore she was (labeled) a prostitute,” the New York-based group said in a statement.

Al-Hammadi’s detention and trial showcase the Houthi repression of women in areas under their control in war-torn Yemen. An Associated Press report last year documented that women who dare dissent, or even enter the public sphere, have become targets in an escalating crackdown.

Officially, the Houthis have charged the actor with committing an indecent act and drug possession. The trial of al-Hammadi, who appeared before a Houthi-run court June 5 and June 9, is ongoing.

Human Rights Watch said the Houthis did not respond to its requests for comment. A spokesman for the rebels was not immediately available Wednesday for comment.

Citing her lawyer, Human Rights Watch said prison guards verbally abused the actor, calling her a “whore” and “slave,” because of her dark skin and Ethiopian origin.

Al-Hammadi was born to a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother. She has worked as a model for four years and acted in two Yemeni soap drama series in 2020. She was the sole breadwinner for her four-member family, including her blind father and a disabled brother.

HRW said the Houthis offered to release al-Hammadi if she would help them entrap their enemies with “sex and drugs.” The rebels were apparently referring to the internationally recognized government and a Saudi-led coalition with whom the rebels have been at war since 2014.

The rebels also threatened to subject her to a “virginity test,” HRW said.

“The Houthi authorities should ensure her rights to due process, including access to her charges and evidence against her so she can challenge it, and immediately drop charges that are so broad and vague that they are arbitrary,” said Michael Page, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.

“Al-Hammadi is just one of an unknown number of Yemeni female detainees who are arbitrarily detained and require immediate protection and justice,” Page said.

The actor has been held in a Houthi-run prison along with five other women who were detained on similar alleged offenses relating to indecency. The five have refused to publicize their cases fearing social stigma and harm to their families’ reputations, Human Rights Watch said.

The Houthi rebels have ruled Sanaa and much of Yemen’s north since 2014, when they marched from their northern stronghold of Saada province and forced the internationally recognized government into exile. Since then Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been in a state of civil war.

The Saudi-led coalition entered the war in 2015 on the side of the government. The war has killed more than 130,000 people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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