Two abducted Yemeni journalists found dead after air strike

New York, May 29, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the kidnapping and killing of two Yemeni TV journalists whose bodies were found this week, days after they had been abducted, in the rubble of a building hit by an air strike.

Abdullah Qabil, a reporter for the satellite TV news networks Belqees TV and Yemen Youth TV, and Youssef al-Ayzari, a reporter for Suhail TV, were kidnapped on May 20 by militiamen allegedly affiliated with the Houthi movement and its allies, according to the journalists’ employers and news reports. Yemen Youth TV, Suhail TV, and the journalists’ families, who issued a statement to the press, said the two were returning to the city of Dhamar after covering a meeting by tribesmen opposed to the Houthis in the Al-Hada region, northeast of the city. The statements by Yemen Youth TV and the journalists’ families say that Qabil and Al-Ayzri were in a car with a third man, Hussein al-Aysi, when they were stopped at a checkpoint manned by the Houthis. The families’ statement also says the Houthi militiamen searched the journalists’ car and confiscated their equipment before capturing them.

The journalists’ bodies were recovered on May 25 and May 26 from the rubble of a building in Dhamar under Houthi control that was hit on May 21 by an air strike by the Saudi-led military coalition, according to news reports. Dozens of other victims were also in the building when it was hit, the reports say. Al-Aysi was not killed in the air strike, news reports said. It is unclear what Al-Aysi’s role was with Qabil and al-Ayzari.

Houthi rebels took control of the capital, Sana’a, and other cities in September 2014, eventually forcing the government to resign, according to news reports. On March 25, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of 10 countries began launching air strikes, targeting territory controlled by the Houthi militia, in an attempt to restore the exiled president who fled Yemen later that month as the Houthis increased control over the country. Around the time that the air strikes began, outlets critical of the Houthis or affiliated with coalition governments have been raided by Houthi forces and their staff temporarily detained, according to CPJ research.

“Yemeni journalists have never faced this level of mortal danger, as dodging bombs and militia checkpoints have become their daily routine,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa research associate, Jason Stern. “We call on every side of this conflict to respect the civilian status of journalists in areas under their control and guarantee the media’s safety.”

News reports and a statement from the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate said the building that was hit in the air strike was an earthquake monitoring station. Belqees TV, Yemen Youth TV, and Suhail TV released statements blaming the Houthis for the deaths of the two reporters and alleging that the Houthis used the journalists as human shields to protect a military installation. After the strike, the head of the earthquake monitoring station told the media that there was no military value to the site, according to news reports.

A spokeswoman from the Saudi embassy in Washington told CPJ on Wednesday to send emailed questions. CPJ emailed questions to the embassy on the same day, which included whether the building was targeted because it allegedly was a military installation and if the coalition was aware that there were journalists being held in the building. CPJ has not received a response.

Al-Masirah TV, the official news outlet of the Houthi movement, said the bombing in Dhamar resulted in a number of civilian casualties and the destruction of many buildings that had no military usage. The station did not mention the deaths of the two journalists.

The ongoing Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has resulted in a large number of civilian casualties. Saudi military officials, facing criticism, have accused Houthi forces of using human shields and fighting within civilian populations, according to news reports.

Last month, a Saudi-coalition airstrike in the Faj Attan neighborhood of Sana’a killed at least one journalist and three staff members of satellite TV station Yemen Today, according to CPJ research. CPJ’s emailed questions to the Saudi embassy in Washington about the Faj Attan airstrike have also not been answered.

This is not the first time that forces loyal to the Houthi movement have targeted Qabil and Al-Ayzari, or their affiliated news outlets. According to Suhail TV, al-Ayzri was captured by the Houthis in early April. He was released on April 9 when the militiamen retreated from the area in which he was being held, according to the journalist’s Facebook page. Two different posts on Qabil’s Facebook page say he was the victim of a kidnapping attempt by the Houthis in late February.

The offices of Suhail TV in Sana’a were raided in March by Houthi militia members, according to a statement by the outlet, and several staff members were taken hostage, according to CPJ research. According to news reports, the channel is closely linked to the Islah Party, a political opponent of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is currently allied with the Houthi movement. Late last month, Belqees TV’s headquarters in Sana’a were attacked by fighters loyal to the Houthi movement, and some of its equipment was stolen, according to news reports and a statement by the station.