Yemen: progress on prisoner exchanges

Summary: as peace talks remain stuck in uncertainty, one piece of good news is the release in two tranches of cohorts of prisoners held by both sides of the conflict.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant and is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war and what lies behind it. In July 2022 Routledge published her new book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

Although the hoped for and anticipated progress in negotiations to end the war in Yemen did not materialise in April, there has been some good news on one of the files upon which the UN Special Envoy’s office has been working since December 2018 when the Stockholm agreement included the planned release of more than 15,000 prisoners of war on both sides. Certainly at the time, that figure raised doubts among many observers. Still, there was hope for a significant swap but a spate of endlessly frustrating meetings over nearly two years soon dashed the optimism. It was not until October 202o that the first major exchange took place when 1056 prisoners were exchanged between the Huthi movement and the Internationally Recognised Government [IRG] under Red Cross auspices. This was followed by yet another series of meetings which two and a half years later, culminated in the release of close to 1000 prisoners in mid-April this year, just in time for those released to spend Eid with their families.  Sixteen Saudis and three Sudanese were included in the April exchange. Assuming the original figures have some connection with reality and given a number of smaller releases agreed bilaterally and through tribal mediation at different times, as well as the fact that more have been captured since 2018, this must leave roughly 13,000 prisoners of war still awaiting release.

Unlike the previous major exchange, this time most of the famous prisoners held by the Huthis were included in the deal, suggesting that they no longer feel the need to hold prisoners as hostages or human shields near strategic locations in Sana’a. Among those released are the greatly respected former Minister of Defence, Mahmoud al Subayhi and the brother of former President Hadi. Both were flown to Aden where the southern separatist leadership had prepared a red carpet reception to show the world that the two supported separatism. Neither of them does and they both avoided the reception and its intended implications by walking straight off the plane into vehicles which took them to their respective home villages. Other notables released were the brother and son of a military leader and nephew of former president Saleh as well as a son of former Vice-President Ali Mohsen and a few other of his close relatives.

Two famous figures were left out of the ‘big names’ exchange. The first is the senior Islahi leader Mohammed Qahtan, whose fate is effectively unknown. Many people believe he is dead, but there has been neither confirmation nor denial by the Huthis despite his relatives and colleagues demanding news about him throughout the years. The other is the military leader Brigadier Faisal Rajab. Originally from the southern governorate of Abyan and a major figure in Yemen’s army prior to the war, his name was not on the mid-April list. Apparently none of the current notables had asked for his release. This was an opportunity which the Huthis  were quick to use to their advantage, welcoming a delegation of tribal leaders from Abyan and neighbouring Shabwa who had come to Sana’a to request Rajab’s release. On 30 April, a formal ceremony was held where he was freed and given ‘gifts’ from the Huthi leader Abdul Malik al Huthi, delivered by the Prime Minister of the Sana’a authorities. Accompanied by large groups of tribal leaders from different parts of the country, the brigadier was greeted and feted in various locations, and returned to his village two days later.

Samira Maresh arriving in Sana’a five years after being abducted from her home in the city of Al-Hazm, Al-Jawf Governorate. The mother of three was accused of spying for the Ansar Allah movement, allegations her family have denied. April 16, 2023 [photo credit: Al Mayadeen]

On the Huthi side, the only ‘famous’ name being held prisoner was Samira Maresh, a leading female Huthi militant from al Jawf, who was arrested and accused of spying by the IRG in 2018. The Huthis have been actively calling for her release ever since, particularly as she is a member of the low status ‘marginalised’ group, and therefore her release is important with respect to this group’s support for the Huthis.  Maresh was finally released 16 April. If there are other senior Huthi prisoners, they are probably held by Saudi Arabia and their situation has not been publicised. The prisoner committees are scheduled to continue negotiations for further releases this month. Given the dynamics of this process over the past four years, people should not hold their breath.

After long and detailed negotiations and pressure, four journalists whom the Huthis had sentenced to death were included in the April deal. Meanwhile, as pointed out in our posting of August last year, there are plenty of others being held illegally and ill-treated throughout the country. Journalists in particular are subject to unjustified detention and disappearance as well as murder. Nowadays, they are joined by individuals posting statements on social media which displease whichever faction is targeted.

Throughout the country, freedom of expression in Yemen has been another victim of this war. A recent study by the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate found 45% of media outlets, including newspapers, magazines, websites, radio and television channels ceased operation due to war and its fallout.

Among the organisations calling for the release of all detainees, whether through so-called judicial processes or otherwise, is the Mothers of Detainees organisation which, with very little support, continues to call for the liberation of all those detained due to the war. Its members take considerable risks picketing prisons and other detention centres where their male relatives are being held. They also, unsurprisingly join other organisations such as Mwatana in going public with national and international appeals to address the multiplicity of injustices which are perpetrated by all sides. Although there is talk of, for example, closing down the holding and torture centre of the UAE in Riyan airport near Mukalla, and of handing over UAE military facilities to local forces in different southern sites, should these handovers to Yemeni forces be carried out, this would not necessarily mean that abuses will end.

Since the release of al-Subayhi and Rajab, leaders of different parties in the conflict have sought their support; respected by all sides, they may have the opportunity of playing a useful role in ending the war. However, as the prospect for a full-scale lasting ceasefire and negotiations fades, rapid success of further bilateral discussions for the release of the remaining thousands of prisoners of war remains an urgent priority.

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