On January 20, as Houthi fighters battled the guards watching the compound of Yemen's president and further expanded their grip on the capital, a US citizen who has been detained in Sana'a since 2010 and hasn't been seen in almost a year called home to say that the Shia rebels had taken over the prison where he is held and that they planned to "kill everyone," according to his wife who resides in the US.
"Yemen is in complete turmoil as of yesterday," she wrote on a Facebook page advocating for his release. "He was able to make a call and asked for his country, America, to save his life by rescuing him from a sectarian battle between two groups [with] which he has no involvement."
Sharif Mobley, a 31-year-old father of three from New Jersey, was snatched by Yemeni security officers 5 years ago and is suspected by the US of having ties to terrorist groups after he made contract with US-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a US drone attack in Yemen in 2011. His wife, who lived with him at the time of his capture, said they had traveled to Yemen to study Arabic and the teachings of Islam.
Sharif Mobley grew up in New Jersey. Photo via Facebook.
Mobley was shot in the leg during his abduction, and interrogated by FBI agents and representatives of the US Department of Defense while in hospital on January 30, 2010 — but never charged with terrorism. Instead, Yemeni authorities later charged him with the murder of a guard during a failed escape attempt, for which he now faces the death penalty. His lawyer was never formally notified of the charges against him.
While his trial is ongoing, Mobley hasn't been seen in court since February 2014. In sporadic, frantic calls made from the cell phone of the occasional sympathetic guard, he has reportedly told his wife that he is being tortured and threatened. On his last call, two days before Yemen's president resigned, plunging the country into political chaos, Mobley once again told his wife that he fears for his life.
VICE News was not able to reach Mobley's wife, Nzinga Islam, to confirm details about that call. Islam remained in Yemen for some time after her husband's arrest, but is now back in the US with their three young children.
Mobley's lawyer, Cori Crider — the legal director of Reprieve, a UK-based legal aid group — told us that Islam is "really, really scared right now."
"There is no trial process anymore, it hasn't happened for ages," said Crider, who hasn't been told where her client is and hasn't been able to speak with him in nearly a year. "[The US] really needs to renegotiate with what remains of the Yemeni state to get this guy deported and back to where he's gonna be safe, because he's really at risk right now."
Crider and Islam said that US officials know where Mobley is — but that they won't tell them.
The State Department has encouraged all US citizens in Yemen to leave the country and reduced embassy services there. US embassy officials in Yemen did not respond to VICE News' requests for information.
A State Department official told VICE News that there are no current plans for the US to directly evacuate Americans and that the US does not evacuate prisoners in a crisis situation, but declined to discuss Mobley's case, citing privacy laws.
That's the same reasoning US officials have given to Crider — who has been fighting for months to find her client.
"I was like, guys, I'm this person's attorney," she said. "He has a right to see his legal representative — that is basic under Yemeni law just like it would be under US law. So you know where he is, you know he has a right to an attorney, what are you doing? Where is he?"
"They won't tell me and they won't tell his family," she added. "Even though they know, they refuse to tell us where their citizen is held at a time when the country is going into total chaos."
Under America's Privacy Act, the state department cannot reveal any information related to a US citizen's "location, welfare, intentions, or problems" to anyone without that person's permission — this includes relatives and members of Congress.
But Crider believes the US government may not only know where Sharif is, but she says they may also have had something to do with his disappearance.
US agents backed Mobley's initial arrest, Crider said, but they may have also been behind his subsequent disappearance. An unnamed Yemeni security source told NBC News that Mobley had been transferred in coordination with the US and that American officials have participated in his interrogation.
"We are very disturbed by recent reports that suggest that they are in some way implicated in the second disappearance," Crider said, adding that she has been fighting the government to disclose more information, including through government records requests. "If that's right, that's a problem of a totally different magnitude."
Mobley's whereabouts over the last year have not been confirmed — including by US officials who claimed to have visited him and found him "in good health and with no major complaints," as reported by the Guardian.
Mobley was believed to be in the hands of Yemen's Specialized Criminal Court — a secretive national security court known for its record of human rights abuse and targeting of political opponents and journalists.
At some point last year, Mobley was believed to be detained at a Sana'a military base. A number of Sana'a's official facilities have recently passed under the control of Houthi rebels — including one seized Thursday, where US officials had previously trained Yemeni security forces on counter-terrorism tactics.
Sharif Mobley with his family in 2008. Photo via Facebook.
In previous calls to his wife, Mobley said that his captors had forced him to drink from bottles that had previously contained urine, and sprayed him with mace when he asked to speak with embassy officials. Lawyers with Reprieve said that during his detention he was beaten, chained to a bed, and dragged down the stairs.
Crider said she planned to write to the State Department again following recent developments in Yemen, to demand answers and to call on the US to take responsibility for its citizen's fate.
"They said that people need to get the hell out of here," she said. "If they are — as Yemen crumbles around him — in some way implicated in this disappearance, that's very disturbing."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi