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Sana Uqba

Yemen in Focus: Prisoner release a 'moment of joy' after years of misery

More than 1,000 prisoners were released in Yemen. [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 October, 2020

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This week we focus on a long-anticipated prisoner release in Yemen.
The long-anticipated prisoner exchange between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels on Thursday has been praised by activists and rights organisations around the world as a step in the right direction.

Images that surfaced online on Thursday showed former prisoners reunite with families after several years in Houthi jail cells. Some of the released detainees were missing and feared dead.

On Friday, two planes carrying released prisoners landed in the southern coastal city of Aden to the joyous tears and cheers of family members. Similar scenes were seen in the capital Sanaa where two planes also landed. 

The welcome move, the biggest such exchange of prisoners since the war erupted in 2015, was a result of negotiations in Switzerland and involved the release of 1,081 prisoners over two days.

The Association of Abductees' Mothers, a network of mothers advocating for the release of their sons and other family members, received hundreds of detainees at Seiyun airport on Thursday after landing from a direct flight from the Houthi-run capital.

The complex operation was overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and was hailed by activists and rights group alike as a major moment of relief after years of war.

"Today's prisoner swap is a positive indication towards the maturity of the negotiation parties and a sign that they are ready to resume comprehensive peace talks to end the war," Rasha Jarhum, director of Peace Track and co-founder of Women Solidarity network, told The New Arab.

Today's prisoner swap is a positive indication towards the maturity of the negotiation parties and a sign that they are ready to resume comprehensive peace talks

"It was heartwarming to see the photos of families reuniting with released detainees but I could also see the suffering in their faces. What they have endured is unthinkable," she said, urging for immediate support for those involved, including families, to receive reintegration.

"I am also concerned that detained women are not included and are facing torture, including rape. Thursday's move is a positive step but more needs to be done in releasing remaining detainees," she added.

Read more: Abducted: 300 days in Houthi prison

Thousands of civilians, including prominent activists, academics and preachers have been abducted and left forgotten in Houthi prisons across the country since the rebels took control of the capital and other major cities in 2014.

According to the Association of Abductees' Mothers, at least 1,433 detainees remain in Houthi prisons across areas under rebel control.

"We were very pleased that the abductees have gained their freedom after up to five years of detention. We are devastated for those that remain detained in the dark and our hearts are with their mothers who spend day and night in tears," the advocacy group told The New Arab, vowing to support them until all detainees are released.

"We value all local and international efforts to support our demands and affirm freedom is an inherent right without any conditions," the group added.

"We hope all agreements work on this principle because these abducted individuals did not participate in any violence throughout this conflict. We call on the international community to support their peaceful choices by standing with them."

Just a day earlier, two captive Americans were freed in Yemen as more than 200 supporters of the country's Houthi rebels were allowed to return home in a swap involving Saudi Arabia and Oman.

The White House announced that humanitarian worker Sandra Loli and businessman Mikael Gidada had been freed by the Houthi rebels.

The rebels also sent back the remains of a third American, Bilal Fateen, the White House said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Fateen died in captivity, without providing details.

Robert O'Brien, the national security advisor, stopped short of saying there was a swap but thanked Saudi King Salman and Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tarik Al-Said "for their efforts to secure the release of our citizens."

President Donald Trump "continues to prioritise securing the release and repatriation of Americans held hostage abroad," O'Brien said in a statement. "We will not rest until those held are home with their loved ones," he said.

The prisoner exchange, the largest of its kind since the war began in 2015, was a result of negotiations in Switzerland

The Houthis said they had been trying to bring home 240 of their supporters stranded in neighbouring Oman. They had travelled to Oman - which frequently plays the role of broker in the turbulent region - two years ago for medical treatment, the rebels said.

"Thanks to God, about 240 fellow countrymen, who had been wounded and stranded, arrived in Sanaa on board two Omani planes," said Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam.

"Among them were the wounded people who left for Muscat during the Sweden talks, and the United Nations did not return them according to the agreement," he said, referring to the UN-sponsored peace process. 

Senior Houthi political official Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi accused the Saudi-led coalition that has led a bloody campaign against the rebels of previously refusing to let the group travel back.

"Today we were pleased to receive some wounded brothers who were stuck outside the country as a result of the brutal and continuous siege on our country. The coalition obstructed their exit and entry, one of its war crimes against Yemenis," Al-Houthi said in a tweet.

Also this week, the governor of Yemen's Shabwa province demanded Emirati forces withdraw from the Balhaf oil facility, one of the most important in the country which has been out of service for more than five years.

UAE tension

The governor of the southern province of Shabwa, Mohammad Saleh bin Adyo, warned of popular protests by citizens and thousands of employees that have been pushed out of work due to Emirati control of the facility.

In a television interview with the local Hadhramout channel, on Monday, bin Adyo said that the UAE has turned the Balhaf gas facility in Shabwa into a "military barracks, and is refusing to restart the facility for the fifth year in a row."

He added that he had addressed the Saudi government, which leads the coalition, about the need to evacuate the facility and restart work there.

Bin Adyo made an offer to the Emiratis, to provide an alternative place in Shabwa to use as a military camp in exchange of them leaving the oil facility.

"We are a country whose budget depends on gas revenues of 70 percent, and we are facing public pressure because there are thousands of workers. They were laid off and left without a job," he said.

"Residents will have to demonstrate in front of the facility. This isn't in the Emirati interest but we will not lose anything more than we already have if we protest," he added. 

Bin Adyo emphasised that the companies are ready to return to work one month after the evacuation of the facility, while the security forces are fully securing it on land and at sea. 

Abu Dhabi has been alone in supporting southern secession, viewing a reborn South Yemen as crucial to its interests in the region.

The UAE has, however, managed to carefully avoid a deeper spat with its close ally Saudi Arabia, which is a firm supporter of a unified Yemeni state. 

The Yemen conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, most of them civilians, and sparked what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino

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