Houthi court sentenced 32 men, 9 of them to death, on January 23, 2024, in an unfair mass trial based on dubious charges of “sodomy,” Human Rights Watch said today. The Houthis should end their use of the death penalty and other forms of cruel and degrading punishment and provide fair trials for those charged.

In addition to death sentences that include crucifixion and stoning, the Houthi court sentenced 23 men to prison for periods of up to 10 years. Three of them were also sentenced to public flogging. The initial court indictment, dated October 17, 2023, included serious due process violations and egregious violations of Yemen’s own criminal procedural code, Human Rights Watch found.

“In an abhorrent disregard for the rule of law, the Houthis are handing down death sentences and subjecting men to public mistreatment without a semblance of due process,” said Niku Jafarnia, Yemen and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Houthis are using these cruel measures to distract from their failure to govern and provide people in their territories with basic needs.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed the official indictments against the 32 men by the Houthi courts and videos of the Houthi court proceedings posted on social media, and interviewed a lawyer with knowledge of the case. Blatant due process violations included police officers failing to provide arrest warrants and unlawfully searching and confiscating the men’s phones. The lawyer questioned whether those charged had adequate access to legal counsel.

Human Rights Watch has documented serious violations by governments in the Middle East and North Africa targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people online and using “illegitimately obtained digital photos, chats, and similar information” to prosecute them.

The Yemeni Criminal Procedures law, under articles 132 and 172, prohibits warrantless arrests as well as seizing people’s belongings in police custody. Article 181 also prohibits police interrogations without the presence of a lawyer.

The Houthi armed group took over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, causing the internationally recognized Yemeni government to flee. The Houthis, as a non-state actor that exercises “de facto control over [a] territory and population,” are obligated to “respect and protect the human rights of individuals and groups” living under their control.

Human Rights Watch has also documented systematic abuses in Houthi prisons. In a 2023 report, the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen found that “Houthi-held prisoners are subjected to systematic psychological and physical torture, including the denial of medical intervention to cure the injuries caused by the torture inflicted, which for some prisoners resulted in permanent disabilities and death.”

On October 10, 2023, another Houthi-run court in Dhamar city, a Yemeni governorate south of Sanaa, convicted 16 men of committing “immoral acts,” according to the official indictment reviewed by Human Rights Watch. According to a post on X by al-Mashhad al-Yemeni, a local news website, on February 14, 2024, Houthi forces gathered 30 men, including the 16 men who had been convicted on October 10, in a cemetery in Dhamar, and stated that they were going to execute the men by stoning them to death. The men were instead returned to detention, according to the same local news website.

Two activists and a lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the families of several defendants fled Dhamar governorate to escape the social stigma associated with the accusations. Another Yemeni activist with knowledge of the case said: “Charging and putting people on trial because of ‘immoral acts’ has catastrophic long-term consequences on people’s lives in Yemen, even if they are fabricated or made up. Those charged and their families will be impacted and stigmatized forever.”

Houthis have repeatedly arrested people who have been critical of their policies under the guise of “committing immoral acts,” Human Rights Watch said. In January 2024, the Houthis arrested Judge Abdulwahab Qatran on charges related to alcohol consumption after he criticized the Houthis’ Red Sea attacks on social media. In 2021, a Houthi court sentenced a Yemeni model and actress, Intisar al-Hammadi, as well as three other women, to prison after convicting them on charges of committing “an indecent act.”

According to Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Houthi courts have sentenced 350 people to death since taking over the capital in 2014 and executed 11 of them. On September 18, 2021, Houthi forces executed 9 people, reportedly including a 17-year-old, in Sanaa’s Tahrir Square. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that “the defendants were sentenced to death in a judicial process that violated their constitutional rights and did not comply with fair trial standards under international law.”

International human rights standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Yemen, obligate countries that use the death penalty to restrict its enforcement to exceptional circumstances for the “most serious crimes.”

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and its determination is often plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error, Human Rights Watch said.

“To cover up their brutality, Houthis are charging people with immoral acts, especially for those who oppose them,” said Jafarnia. “The Houthis should immediately end the use of the death penalty and other forms of cruel and degrading punishments and provide due process for those charged.”