Yemen’s rival sides begin largest-yet prisoner swap

The Houthi rebels and the Aden-based government agreed last month to exchange 1,081 prisoners.

al-monitor Freed Yemeni Houthi prisoners wave to the crowd as they descend the stairs of the plane that transported them on Oct. 15, 2020, to Sanaa airport, after being released as the war-torn country began swapping 1,000 prisoners in a complex operation overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 15, 2020

The largest prisoner exchange in the history of Yemen’s long-running civil war began today, the United Nations and aid groups said, a day after the Houthi rebels released two American hostages. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is helping facilitate the transfer of more than 1,000 detainees this week, confirmed on Twitter that five of its planes carrying Yemeni prisoners took off this morning from airports in Abha, Saudi Arabia, and the Yemeni cities of Sanaa and Seiyun. 

Last month in the Swiss town of Montreux, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government agreed to exchange 1,081 prisoners, including 15 Saudis. The exchange represents a fraction of the 15,000 prisoners the two sides agreed to swap under a broader pact reached in Stockholm in 2018. 

In a briefing to the UN Security Council, UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths described the latest prisoner release as "an airlift of hope for Yemen."

"It may well be the largest such operation of this kind in the history of prisoner release," he said, adding that his team will soon convene the warring parties to discuss further releases in line with commitments made in Stockholm. 

Yemen has been embroiled in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels overran the capital in 2014, and the Saudi and Emirati-led military coalition intervened the following year to restore the internationally recognized government. The fighting has created what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

On Wednesday, two US citizens were released from Houthi custody. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news, said the release of humanitarian worker Sandra Loli and businessman Mikael Gidad came in exchange for more than 200 Houthi members stranded in Oman. The remains of another American, Bilal Fateen, were also repatriated

Rights organizations have accused all of Yemen’s parties, including the government, the Houthis, the United Arab Emirates and Emirati-backed forces, of mistreating detainees. In a report released in June, the independent Yemeni group Mwatana documented 1,605 cases of arbitrary detention and 770 cases of enforced disappearance since 2016. 

Rights groups have warned that imprisoned Yemenis are at risk of unlawful attacks on their detention centers. In August 2019, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes hit a Houthi-run prison site in the city of Dhamar and killed nearly 170 people, according to Mwatana.