SANAA — Yemen’s post-“Arab spring” transition took a sharp new turn on Monday, when the Houthis—a once marginalized Zaidi Shia insurgency group from northern Yemen that prefers to be called Ansar Allah—staged an apparently successful coup after months of careful groundwork. Its fighters surrounded the presidential palace without major bloodshed and, after forging alliances to ensure that the military would not come to his aid, forced President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to leave the compound.
On Tuesday, the group’s leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, gave a speech on TV that made it very clear that Ansar Allah is now wielding power. The military wing of Ansar Allah planned its latest move carefully, beginning with its advance on the capital, Sanaa, on September 17. Its victory forced Hadi’s government to accept a peace agreement, key elements of which Ansar Allah then ignored, maintaining military checkpoints across the capital, posting fighters outside government offices, and sometimes directly intervening in government administration.
After Ansar Allah forces stormed the presidential palace, some political players tried to convince Hadi to announce an official transfer of power to the parliamentary speaker, who is close to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh—but Hadi refused. Saleh, whom Hadi replaced in February 2012 after nearly a year of anti-government demonstrations, was by all accounts instrumental in ensuring that the Yemeni military did not resist the Ansar Allah coup.
On Thursday President Hadi issued a statement showing that he is still the face of the government, but has given into all the demands of Ansar Allah. By all accounts the movement is happy to keep him at the helm as stamp of legitimacy. There is little evidence of support for Hadi either within the country or internationally besides a Tuesday statement issued by the United Nations Security Council. Many Yemenis view him as having practically handed the keys of the city to Ansar Allah when their forces advanced on Sanaa last September, while many foreign diplomats have become frustrated at his handling of affairs in recent months and failure to take decisive action when needed. The Islamists with ties to the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who strongly oppose Ansar Allah’s power gains, have been significantly weakened since September and could do little to resist the Houthi advance.
The question on everyone’s mind is, “What next?” Does Ansar Allah have sufficient and capable resources to govern Yemen? Add to that another question: Does Ansar Allah understand fully the human-rights obligations it has taken on by taking control?
In its recent military operations, Ansar Allah appears to have tried to avoid civilian casualties, both in September and on Monday, when, according to the Health Ministry, three civilians died and 29 were injured. Yet Ansar Allah has failed to respect other important obligations, such as the prohibition on child soldiers. On Tuesday, I saw four boys who appeared to be between 12 and 15 carrying AK-47s with Houthi stickers—helping to man two Ansar Allah checkpoints.
Since September, reports have suggested that Ansar Allah has been using various unofficial locations to hold people it has taken into custody. One journalist told me that Ansar Allah forces abducted him in December and held him for three days in a cell, where he was blindfolded, kicked and only allowed to eat and use the bathroom once a day, apparently because of work he had done documenting AQAP territorial gains.
I also interviewed a human-rights lawyer who said that armed men from Ansar Allah forced him into a vehicle in December after he became embroiled in a dispute between religious leaders in a mosque. He said his abductors held him for six days, the first four in a dark room furnished only with a mattress and two blankets that was so small that he could not stand.. Another man in the same room said he had been held there for 23 days for selling guns, the lawyer said.
These are merely two of many cases of alleged rights abuses by Ansar Allah that Human Rights Watch has received since September. But they highlight concerns that even members of Ansar Allah’s political wing have acknowledged in closed meetings with the leadership of Yemen’s other parties— that they are simply not sufficiently prepared for the responsibilities that their military wing has forced them to take on.
But with Ansar Allah sitting squarely at the center of power in Sanaa, its leaders need to understand that the world will now be holding them accountable for any failures to protect and respect human rights, just as with any other authorities. They should embrace these obligations and demonstrate that they are committed to respecting the rights of all Yemenis.
Belkis Wille is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who does extensive work in Yemen.