Uncertainties as to what’s next after Yemen prisoner swap

The Yemeni government still has doubts about the Houthi militias’s commitment to implementing the terms of the agreement.
Monday 28/09/2020
Head of the Houthi prisoner exchange committee Abdulkader al-Murtada (L) shakes hands with Head of the Yemeni government delegation Hadi Haig (2nd L) next to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths at the end of a meeting on September 27, in Glion, Switzerland. (AFP)
Head of the Houthi prisoner exchange committee Abdulkader al-Murtada (L) shakes hands with Head of the Yemeni government delegation Hadi Haig (2nd L) next to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths at the end of a meeting on September 27, in Glion. (AFP)

ADEN – Yemen’s warring parties agreed to exchange 1,081 prisoners, including 15 Saudis, as part of trust-building steps aimed at reviving a stalled peace process, the United Nations said Sunday.

The timing, sequence and logistics of the exchange were still being finalised by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which will organise the transfers, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said.

The two parties reached a partial agreement after a week of meetings in Switzerland, in continuation of understandings reached at the last meeting in the Jordanian capital, Amman, last February.

Under the agreement, the Houthis will release 400 detainees, including Saudis and Sudanese, in exchange for the Yemeni government’s release of 681 prisoners.

The undersecretary of the Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights and a member of the government delegation at the Prisoners Committee meeting, Majid Fadayel, said that the agreement is a positive first step towards releasing all prisoners and detainees.

In a statement to The Arab Weekly from Geneva, Fadayel said they had achieved a partial victory that is an important step to moving the stagnant waters. He pointed out that the Jordan agreement reached last February provided for the release of 1,420 detainees, including the four individuals covered by the UN Security Council Resolution 2216.

In the new round of meetings, it was agreed to implement part of the previous agreement so that 1,081 detainees would be released, provided that both parties commit to holding a next round of talks at the end of October to discuss completing the implementation of the Jordan agreement and increasing the number of released detainees from both sides, including the four individuals included in the UN Security Council resolution.

According to Fadayel, the delegation of the legitimate government agreed to provisionally implement the agreement, which would lead to it being followed through “all for all,” including by releasing all detainees as stipulated in the Sweden agreement.

Fadayel stressed that the prisoners’ file will have a positive impact if the agreements are implemented.

The Yemeni government still has doubts about the Houthi militias’s commitment to implementing the terms of the agreement, however. It is concerned that the Houthis may seek to avoid following through on the agreement under false pretences. At the same time, the government believes implementing the accord is an essential step to build confidence, which will reflect positively on other files.

In response to a question by The Arab Weekly about the mechanism for selecting names covered by the prisoner exchange agreement, a member of the government team in the Prisoners’ Committee said, “There was no specific choice of names, and each party did not choose the prisoners they wanted to release, but rather the other party would determine that. For example, the Houthis presented a list of 2,500 prisoners whom they wanted to be released, and we have selected the names of those who will be freed…

“The Houthi’s list included fake names or names of prisoners who were not held by the government in the first place,” he said.

“We presented a list of names of our detainees in Houthi prisons, and the militias selected the names of those who will be freed beforehand. A discussion took place about some names that suffer from exceptional health or humanitarian conditions within the framework of understandings of a humane nature, and therefore there was no selection when it comes to names, as some believe.”

Three previous meetings held under the auspices of the United Nations and the International Red Cross failed to reach a formula for the release of all detainees and prisoners from both sides, as stipulated in the agreement signed between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in Stockholm in 2018.

The statement issued by Griffiths’ office and the Red Cross indicated that the two parties renewed their commitment to the Swedish agreement, including the clause that calls for “the release of all prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared and persons under house arrest.”

They also agreed to hold a new meeting for the Prisoners Committee with the aim of implementing the remainder of the understandings reached during the Amman meeting and to “commit to making all efforts to add new numbers with the aim of releasing all prisoners and detainees, including the four covered by UN Security Council Resolutions 2216, in reference to the former Defence Minister Major General Mahmoud Al-Subaihi, Nasser Mansour Hadi (brother of the Yemeni President), the military leader Faisal Rajab, and the leader of the Islah party Muhammad Qahtan.”

Yemeni political sources revealed to The Arab Weekly that the Houthis had refused to enter into negotiations over the release of the four detainees, as the group seeks to use them as a political pressure card in any consultations for a final solution in Yemen.

Commenting on the agreement between the government and the Houthis, Griffiths said, “Releasing those detainees will bring immense relief and comfort to more than a thousand families who will be reunited with their loved ones because of your acts and your decisions. It will bring reassurance and hope to many more families still waiting the release of their loved ones and their friends.”

Griffiths thanked the parties for moving past their differences and reaching a settlement that would benefit all Yemenis. He urged the parties to proceed immediately with releasing the detainees and spare no effort to build on this momentum to quickly agree on the release of more detainees.

Political sources previously revealed to The Arab Weekly that the UN envoy has put further pressure on the government and Houthis to hold a meeting of the Prisoner Exchange Committee in Switzerland in an attempt to break the political stalemate and end the escalation of military confrontations on the borders of Marib governorate, east of Sana’a.

The military situation in Marib had given the impression that Griffiths’ efforts were failing, especially after he presented an initiative for a final solution that was eventually rejected by all parties to the conflict.

Yemeni political researcher Saeed Bakran viewed the prisoner exchange agreement as a public relations manoeuvre that both the government and the Houthis need to relieve mounting international pressure.

Bakran pointed out in a statement to The Arab Weekly that the government urgently needs to restore its relationship with the international envoy, while the Houthis seek to portray any partial concession on their part as evidence of their cooperation and positive engagement with international efforts to bring peace.

On the prospects of the agreement being a stepping stone for the upcoming peace talks between the two parties, Bakran added, “If this step succeeds, it may open a path towards further detente. The government and the Houthis now seem interested in rapprochement in the face of threats by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the south and the national resistance on the west coast. With that in mind, the prisoner exchange if implemented could lead to other agreements.”

For his part, ICRC regional director for the Near and Middle East Fabrizio Carboni considered that the prisoners’ agreement constitutes “a positive step for hundreds of detainees and their families back home who have been separated for years and will be reunited soon.”

However, he noted that it marks only the beginning of the process and encouraged parties to continue with “the same urgency” to agree on a concrete implementation plan “so this operation can move from signatures on paper to reality on the ground.’’

The minister of human rights in the Yemeni government, Mohammad Askar, described the agreement as a victory for human rights in Yemen, as hundreds of Yemeni families will be reunited with their loved ones “at last and after a long wait.” He stressed that this tragedy will not end without the release of all prisoners and hostages, especially the four covered by Security Council resolutions.

He expressed hope that this step would “open the doors of optimism to achieving the peace that Yemeni people are seeking, and stop human rights violations, after nearly six years of a war that was provoked by the Houthi militias.”

Houthi leaders issued lukewarm comments on the agreement signed in Switzerland, with its official spokesperson and head of its negotiating delegation, Muhammad Abdul-Salam, writing on Twitter: “In implementation of the Sweden agreement and the subsequent meetings and discussions with the United Nations, the Prisoners and Detainees Committee concluded the first phase agreement for the release of more than a thousand detainees by both sides, including Saudis and Sudanese.”

Mohammad Ali al-Houthi, a prominent leader of the group, wrote, “What we care about is the implementation of the prisoners’ agreement, not just signatures.”

Political observers view the prisoner exchange agreement signed in Switzerland as a continuation of the UN envoy’s efforts to score minor victories as part of his relentless pursuit of a political breakthrough in the Yemeni file.

Experts believe that the agreement is a chapter from the prisoners’ file that was originally extracted from a more comprehensive agreement signed in Sweden in late 2018.

None of the clauses of the Sweden agreement were implemented, including the provision on the prisoner exchange file, which Griffiths pressured the Yemeni parties to agree to as it was the least complicated of the issues at hand.

In recent days, the Yemeni government has received widespread criticism on social media over leaked news about an unannounced prisoner exchange deal between the government and the Houthis that has been marred by ambiguity.

The unannounced deal includes the release of the prominent Houthi leader Yahya al-Dailami, who is described as the most prominent Houthi prisoner detained by the government.

The deal also includes the release of a number of Houthi prisoners in exchange for Houthi militiamen allowing the son of Yemeni Vice-President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to leave Yemen.