Not long after midnight on Sept. 18, 2020, Adel Al-Hasani knelt down with a blindfold over his eyes and his hands tied behind his back and thought about where he had seen fellow journalists in that position: in Islamic State videos, broadcast as chilling propaganda.
Al-Hasani, 34, pictured his three sons and his pregnant wife. He silently asked God to forgive his misdeeds. Like the journalists captured by ISIS, he expected to be murdered. He had already imagined that his body would be found on a beach days later; though he wasn’t certain where he was, he could smell sea air.
But his captors had a different plan. A guard grabbed him by the right shoulder and took him to an interrogation room. At one of the two detention facilities Al-Hasani had already passed through that night, he had faced dozens of questions while being kicked and beaten for hours. This time, he only had to provide his name and address. Then the guard searched him and led him to the cell that would be his home for the next three weeks: a tiny space filled with mosquitoes and bottles of urine where the lights were kept on all night and no fresh air could temper the September heat.
Al-Hasani ultimately spent six months detained in the custody of the Southern Transitional Council, the U.S.-linked militia that has taken over southern Yemen amid the country’s ongoing civil war. The organization ― which receives American weapons and other support from one of Washington’s closest partners in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates ― never fully explained why Al-Hasani was detained, and a local judge ultimately determined that he had to be released.
In Al-Hasani’s first interview since his release in March, he said he sees a clear reason for his six-month imprisonment: The group wanted to silence him.
“Journalism in Yemen is being slaughtered from ear to ear.”
As a reporter and fixer for international news outlets, Al-Hasani’s work has been vital to global awareness about the devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where fighting has killed thousands of civilians and forced millions of people to live in famine-like conditions. He has contributed to groundbreaking stories, including work that has won an Emmy, and been nominated for an Oscar and a Peabody Award, while almost never receiving public credit for the work.
In the U.S., that reporting has sparked a furor over America’s role in Yemen’s suffering. Since 2015, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have used American support to fight a Yemeni militia called the Houthis — whose chief ally is the longtime U.S. bugbear Iran. American-backed forces have killed civilians, targeted political opponents and restricted access to vital supplies. Al-Hasani helped CNN produce a 2019 package on illegal Saudi and UAE weapons transfers to extremist militants and other Yemeni partners that prompted a congressional uproar and a Pentagon investigation.
Bipartisan pressure and intense activism ultimately led to former President Donald Trump cutting off aerial refueling for bombing runs by the Saudis, the UAE and their allies in 2018, and to President Joe Biden ending most other assistance.
Biden now says that ending the war in Yemen is a top priority. But America’s partners there are still making peace and stability less likely.
Al-Hasani, who experienced intimidation by representatives of the UAE and the Southern Transitional Council firsthand, believes those forces are suppressing independent voices so they can behave as ruthlessly as they want, with ongoing U.S. support.
“Journalism in Yemen is being slaughtered from ear to ear,” he told HuffPost.
And it’s not just journalists who suffer ― it’s millions of people trapped in conflict who are losing their best hope of holding their rulers accountable.
Representatives of the UAE and the UAE-backed southern council repeatedly tried to bribe and bully Al-Hasani, he told HuffPost. Although he was released this spring, after HuffPost revealed his detention and the Biden administration pushed the UAE for his release, Al-Hasani still fears for his safety ― and for the fate of the country he has now fled.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed to HuffPost that the U.S. advocated for Al-Hasani’s release, the first time the agency has done so.
“Targeting journalists for doing their jobs is unacceptable,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. ”We will continue to advocate for the immediate release of anyone arbitrarily detained, including with partner governments like the UAE, and urge all parties to the Yemen conflict to respect human rights.”
If the Biden administration is serious about maintaining that standard ― and getting Yemen on a path to recovery ― U.S. officials will have to work to make America’s partners change course.
“They don’t want the reality to come out,” Al-Hasani said. “They are doing their best to make Yemen a big prison.”
‘When My Father Came, He Didn’t Recognize Me’
Al-Hasani’s nightmare began on a Thursday that was busy, but not out of the ordinary. As he often did, he was using his contacts and expertise to help foreign journalists. Authorities in Yemen’s port city of Mokha had detained two French correspondents he was set to work with, and Al-Hasani set off to secure their release. He texted Saeed Al-Mahiri, an Emirati who works with southern Yemeni forces like the ruling militia in Mokha, to seek help.
Like many players in the war’s various factions, Al-Mahiri knew Al-Hasani and his work. He had even granted the reporter a rare interview in 2018. That night, Al-Hasani told him he was en route to his French colleagues. Al-Hasani believes the Emirati may have learned more about their reporting plans from UAE allies who had confiscated the French journalists’ phones. (Al-Mahiri did not respond to a request for comment on his involvement.)
Thirty minutes after the two men stopped messaging, Al-Hasani reached a checkpoint called Al-Alam, on the outskirts of Aden. He had negotiated his way through hundreds of checkpoints over years of reporting. But the rules had suddenly changed. The guards arrested him and took him to the nearby Dawfas checkpoint, run by a notorious southern council official named Hussein Halboub, who is identified in Yemeni media as the deputy commander of the post. Halboub told guards to move Al-Hasani from his car to a back room.
For three hours, they kicked and punched him while accusing him of murder and espionage. The interrogation only ended so Al-Hasani’s captors could move him to the next phase of his ordeal. They took him, blindfolded, to Beir Ahmed ― a makeshift jail where UAE officers have deployed sexual torture against detainees.
Bruised and terrified, Al-Hasani was left alone in a brightly lit room with a small window. He saw two pickup trucks pull up after about an hour; two men got out, one in the uniform of the UAE-backed southern forces and the other in a black jacket with a black scarf covering his face. It was an outfit Al-Hasani associated with al Qaeda, and it made him panic: Would he be transferred to the custody of one of the extremist militant groups known to work with America’s partners in Yemen?
Instead of answers about his fate, he got a new blindfold, instructions to kneel, and a loud soundtrack for a long, bumpy ride that seemed designed to confuse his sense of direction. The jerks and shudders made his hands bleed as they scraped against the car’s metal floor.
Al-Hasani guessed that his final stop of the night was one of two infamous military camps by the sea. He later learned he was right: It was Al-Jala, an unofficial prison where the Yemeni human rights group Mwatana has documented the use of electrocution and sleep deprivation.
It was his home for the next 25 days. Placed in a fetid cell and unable to communicate with the outside world, Al-Hasani was referred to only as “number 5” ― unaware of who numbers 1 through 4 were because the guards never allowed them out at the same time for their brief toilet trips or long interrogation sessions.
Al-Hasani usually took his family out to lunch on Fridays. He spent the night thinking about how they would react when he didn’t return home to be with them that Friday.
During “investigations,” his captors echoed the narrative of the UAE and its local allies. They said he should use his skills to contribute to a future independent southern Yemen. He retorted that they looked more like a brutal militia than freedom fighters and that he was more likely to believe them if their top leaders were actually fighting in Yemen rather than safely in the UAE. He had nothing left to lose, so he was frank.
“After one particularly humiliating interrogation, he told the guards a bullet in the head would be better than more of their sessions.”
Al-Hasani made simple requests. He would like clean clothes to pray in to avoid disrespecting God. He didn’t mind the kicks, slaps and shouts during his near-daily interrogations, but could the self-appointed investigators stop insulting his mother and his wife?
The men in charge didn’t let up. Placing him in the middle of a group of men chewing the leafy stimulant qat, prison officials would ask the same questions over and over, every so often randomly throwing in surprise punches. They realized insulting language hurt Al-Hasani the most, so they heaped more abuse on his family.
After one particularly humiliating interrogation, he told the guards a bullet in the head would be better than more of their sessions. He went on a hunger strike that left him so weak he could barely stand, crawling on all fours.
That brought some results. Six days in, after he promised to eat some olives, the guards allowed him a two-minute phone call to his wife, to tell her he was alive and ask about her pregnancy. His plea for death got him better access to the toilet.
But he had to do more to get what he most wanted: a transfer to the official jail in the city of Aden, where his family could at least visit and the formal legal system still functions to some degree.
His jailers eventually told him he could have his life back if he would make one small, secret change. They wanted him to become an informant, betraying his fellow reporters, abandoning his journalistic principles and quietly helping to break Yemen apart.
After weeks of despair, Al-Hasani agreed, privately deciding he would flee Yemen after briefly appearing to follow through. It was risky — the guards said they knew his father’s name and where he worked — but it was a deal.
One week later, the southern council officials moved him to the central jail in Aden, known as Al-Mansoura. And after 12 more days, Al-Hasani was allowed to see his wife and his father-in-law. He wished he looked more like himself: After weeks of eating barely anything ― two olives for dinner on some nights ― he was rail-thin. When his father visited the next day, he couldn’t even recognize him.
Al-Hasani spent another two months in solitary confinement before being moved to a dormitory containing more than 30 prisoners. The authorities finally appointed a prosecutor for his case who could draw up charges based on the southern council’s claim that Al-Hasani was spying for foreign countries.
The prosecutor had to try three times before he could even visit in person to present Al-Hasani with the charges. The first time he came to the prison, guards told him the jailed journalist could not meet him because he hadn’t yet been issued a uniform. At the next visit, they said they had lost the key to his cell. The prosecutor waited for two hours the third time he came, telling officials he would not leave until he saw Al-Hasani. When they ultimately met, he said the court had no evidence for the accusations that he was a spy.
Al-Hasani’s supporters ― his family, his attorney Liza Manea Saeed and foreigners who had worked with him ― were privately pushing influential figures to get him released. Repeatedly, they heard promises that made them think his freedom was imminent.
They were let down each time, with excuses like the court needing to close for a strike ― and by late December, began describing their efforts to HuffPost and others to prepare to take Al-Hasani’s plight public as a last resort.
“His jailers eventually told him he could have his life back if he would make one small, secret change. They wanted him to become an informant, betraying his fellow reporters, abandoning his journalistic principles and quietly helping to break Yemen apart.”
Al-Hasani wanted more than freedom. He didn’t want to let his family down by leaving any shred of doubt that the allegations were true. And he worried that a public fuss would make a future ― and more reporting ― in Aden impossible.
But after four months of working backchannels, he and his allies concluded that going public was the only possibly effective option left. HuffPost published the news of his detention on Feb. 8. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch soon released additional details. In Washington, U.S. officials began to lean on the UAE.
As before, pressure worked. The guards began treating Al-Hasani better, permitting his family to bring him food and clothing.
On March 14, the UAE-backed authorities released Al-Hasani. He hugged his children for the first time in six months and finally met his daughter, who had been born while he was behind bars.
He quickly started to plan for their future in a safer location. Four days after his release, Al-Hasani left Aden on a Friday ― the day after the first night of the Yemeni weekend, an evening usually filled with qat and bound to leave guards at checkpoints drowsy.
He traveled to his family village in the province of Abyan, controlled by Saudi-backed forces rather than those working with the UAE. And a few weeks later, he drove to the Seyoun airport.
A local friend from his time in jail accompanied him and waited until Al-Hasani called to say he was in the air. Soon afterward, Al-Hasani’s wife and children left too. (HuffPost is not revealing their location to protect their safety.)
Now they’re all together, Al-Hasani is still planning out the stories he wants to tell about Yemen. In between, he’s playing video games with his kids. They have a lot of lost time to make up for.
‘The War Against Journalists’
Before America’s friends in Yemen decimated Al-Hasani’s old life, he was already desperate to show the world what was happening in his country. Documenting the toll of the civil war ― meeting people who had lost loved ones and uncovering cynical strategies that would only make peace less likely ― had made him more determined to convince the world to end Yemen’s pain.
Al-Hasani valued global awareness over nearly everything else: Though he relied on journalism to pay his bills and was becoming warier of outsiders who could dip in and out of the war, he started charging international reporters less for his help. Even as he saw correspondents win acclaim for work he helped produce, he doubled down on anonymity to ensure he could keep reporting; he started asking the journalists he worked with not to even take photographs of him.
Two factors were making his journalism more challenging, even before his arrest, Al-Hasani said. In 2019, the Southern Transitional Council took over his city of Aden. That made it hard for reporters to alternate coverage of the council with stories on its rival, Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Any critical articles were suddenly perceived as direct attacks on the council.
Meanwhile, the internationally recognized government and its ally Saudi Arabia made it far more difficult for foreign journalists to travel to Yemen, shutting down the process for issuing permits in Aden and barring reporters on flights in.
In the north of the country, where the Houthi militia rules with Iranian support, authorities have tortured and starved journalists. Four reporters there are currently facing the death penalty.
Even if U.S. diplomacy to end the Yemeni war succeeds, all those factions will still wield serious power. Highlighting their tactics could be the only way to shame them out of future repression.
With less coverage, “they won’t hesitate to make it worse,” Al-Hasani said. And their alarming tendencies ― and willingness to escalate ― are clear.
Al-Hasani told HuffPost he was detained overnight in 2019. A week later, a mysterious vehicle bashed into the rear of his car. His family was terrified. He got the message: We’re still watching you. He stayed quiet and kept working, confident that if he followed the unspoken rules he had become used to, he would remain safe.
He has also repeatedly fended off attempts to buy his silence. In 2018, the UAE official Al-Mahiri sent Al-Hasani messages offering to hire him to set up a new media project. Al-Hasani quickly understood the real task: to serve as the UAE’s “eye in the region.” He refused. When he went to interview Al-Mahiri a few months later, he asked tough questions and got “bullshit” in response ― as well as an envelope. He opened it when he got home, finding wads of cash.
An official with the southern council twice tried to hire him to be their representative to international groups in 2019. A spokesman for the council did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
And soon after he left Yemen, Al-Hasani got an unexpected WhatsApp message from a man who said he commanded UAE-backed forces in the province of Hadramaut. The man, who called himself Abu Muhammed, suggested that Al-Hasani could build a new life in the UAE ― an idea that still makes Al-Hasani laugh out loud. But there are depressing precedents of such offers working: In 2017, a journalist who was jailed for more than a year by UAE allies in Egypt took $250,000 from an Emirati official to launch a public campaign attacking Qatar, the UAE’s regional foe. (HuffPost’s calls and messages to the number used by Abu Muhammed went unanswered.)
The scale of the battle to suppress independent journalism was clear in how hard it was to get Al-Hasani released. After HuffPost revealed that he was detained, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), prominent journalists and major human rights groups spent weeks highlighting the case — specifically calling out the UAE and its well-connected ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba. Amid the pressure, Emirati representatives privately claimed to U.S. officials that they knew nothing about Al-Hasani, a congressional aide told HuffPost. (The UAE’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.)
There’s no guarantee other cases will be able to attract attention in that way.
“I would recommend any foreign journalist visiting Yemen to be more aware of the situation there. It’s not safe anymore,” Al-Hasani told HuffPost. He reflected on the last reporters he helped, the Frenchmen who were briefly detained back in September. “I cannot say I was smart to get them out safely — it was the will of Allah.”
He’s still thinking about his homeland, though; particularly the situation in Aden, where the southern council and its opponents have waged a bloody, secretive war for years while most international coverage of Yemen has focused on fighting elsewhere.
The people killed and injured there deserve to be covered, too, Al-Hasani said. He plans to help get them their due: He’s working on what he describes as the “best story” of his career while struggling with establishing himself in a new setting.
“It’s a painful experience to leave your home against your will,” he said. “And the worst feeling is when you’re very loyal to your home and you get such a painful reward.”
Rowaida Abdelaziz contributed reporting.