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Commentary An Unfinished Deal: Yemen’s Prisoner Exchanges

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

Over the course of three days — April 14, 15, and 16 — 887 prisoners were exchanged among Yemen’s warring parties in a deal facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Houthi forces released 706 detainees in exchange for 181 prisoners held by forces affiliated with the internationally recognized government and the Arab coalition. While most detainees were Yemeni nationals, the exchange also led to the release of 16 Saudi nationals and three Sudanese soldiers. ICRC planes transferred prisoners from six airports in Yemen and Saudi Arabia: Sana’a, Aden, Al-Makha, Tadaween (near Marib), and Abha and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. On April 17, Saudi Arabia unilaterally announced the release of an additional 104 Yemeni detainees, bringing the total number to 973 freed prisoners and making it the largest exchange since October 2020.

The latest prisoner exchange deal is the result of several rounds of negotiation which followed the 2018 Stockholm Agreement. Although an important step on the road toward peace, it still marks a sharp deterioration from the deal reached in Sweden, where the same parties committed to exchange all prisoners of war, and refrain from capturing future prisoners. No swap materialized until 2020, and the topic of prisoner exchanges did not gain momentum again until the declaration of a truce in April 2022.

During meetings in Amman, government and Houthi representatives reached an agreement to exchange 2,223 prisoners in total. It took another full year to agree upon an implementation mechanism in Switzerland in March 2023. The negotiations, sponsored by the UN special envoy’s office, were reportedly heated and entailed mutual accusations of obstruction, according to sources present during the talks. The presence of two Saudi representatives, Major General Nasser al-Thunayan and Major General Falah al-Shahrani, ultimately added pressure to secure a deal; however, the parties reduced the number of prisoners they intended to swap from 2,223 to 887 people.

Special Negotiations

Throughout the conflict, all parties have detained politicians and civilians, often directly capturing them from their homes or workplaces. Houthi forces are particularly well-known for this tactic. In the months after they first took over Sana’a in 2014, and as clashes intensified with loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis detained countless civilians on spurious grounds. In the latest deal, Houthis adopted a strategy of seeking to exchange high profile civilians or politicians for captured Houthi fighters. In one case, four journalists — Tawfiq al-Mansouri, Abdelkhaleq Omran, Akram al-Walidi, and Al-Harith Hamed — who were abducted from their newsroom in June 2015 and later sentenced to death, were released in exchange for one woman: Samira Marsh, who the government accuses of involvement in multiple assassinations and the planting of several explosive devices in Al-Jawf and Marib, leading to the deaths of dozens of government-affiliated combatants. She was the only woman included in the recent prisoner exchange deal. According to a source involved in the negotiations, the Yemeni government demanded the release of Mohammed Qahtan, assistant secretary-general of the Islah Party, in exchange for Marsh, but the Houthis refused.

Qahtan remains unaccounted for. The Houthis originally requested the release of 500 captives in exchange for Qahtan. This number was lowered to 200, and then 100 detainees, according to a source involved in the talks. The Houthi refusal to disclose his fate has triggered debate on whether Qahtan is still alive. He has not been permitted contact with his relatives since his arrest, which is rare among high profile detainees. Another prisoner whose fate remains unknown is journalist Waheed al-Sufi, who was detained by Houthis outside the Sana’a Tahrir Post Office in 2015.

Meanwhile, Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, the former minister of defense and the only detainee mentioned by name in UN Resolution 2216, was exchanged for 100 Houthi fighters. Former President Hadi’s brother, Nasser, was also released in exchange for 150 Houthi fighters. In celebration, Hadi held a Ramadan banquet in Riyadh, his first public appearance since he ceded power to the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) in April 2022. Afash Tareq Saleh and Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, son and brother of PLC member and National Resistance forces commander Tareq Saleh, respectively, were also released in exchange for 100 Houthi fighters in the March negotiations.

Another high profile detainee, Major General Faisal Rajab, was released in an arrangement outside the framework of formal negotiations. Houthis initially refused to release Rajab, but tribal leaders from his home governorate of Abyan traveled to Sana’a to mediate a deal, and he was released on April 30. Rajab participated in the six Sa’ada wars, and was a prominent military commander during the 1994 war.

Future rounds of negotiations are needed to address several files listing outstanding detainees. This includes government soldiers captured from the Hajour area in Hajjah governorate and members of Major General Radad al-Hashemi’s Brigade. The Houthis still hold 1,200 Islah party detainees, while 200 Houthi detainees are held by Islah. Moreover, the fact that some prisoners submitted fake names when arrested has complicated the process of verifying identities among prisoner lists provided by warring parties, according to a source involved in the negotiations.

Finally, an important issue not discussed during prisoner swap negotiations is the fact that many detainees will still experience a reality of a forced exile. Rather than being returned to their homes, many are sent to areas currently under the control of whichever party they are affiliated with. For example, government affiliates who were detained in Sana’a were sent to Marib. Meanwhile, captives who were originally from Marib but are affiliated with the Houthis, were sent to Sana’a. The same logic applies to those affiliated with Saleh’s National Resistance Forces or the Southern Transitional Council. All detainees are treated as prisoners of war, even if the captives are civilians or politicians who simply want to return home. The Geneva Convention specifies that the detaining authority must return prisoners of war to the party the soldier enlisted with, but this legal precedent should not apply to civilians.