Yemeni detainee's family prepare for emotional reunion after 8 years in Houthi prison

Tawfiq Al Mansouri's daughter has all her school certificates to show her father how well she has been performing

Tawfiq Al Mansouri has been in a Houthi prison for eight years. He is expected to be released as part of a prisoner swap on Sunday. Photo: Abdullah Al Mansouri
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Tawfiq Al Mansouri will be coming home to a changed family after eight years in a rebel-held jail in Yemen.

His eldest daughter, Tawakkul, 13, who was too young to go to school when he was detained, is now in high school. His immediate family is also one member short.

In 2020, the Houthi group sentenced Al Mansouri to death, but on Sunday he is likely to be released as part of a high-profile prisoner exchange with Saudi Arabia.

His father was devastated by that death sentence.

"My father died in 2020 after contracting the coronavirus. But his health deteriorated because he couldn't take the pain of believing his son would be executed," Al Mansouri's brother, Abdullah, told The National in an exclusive interview.

When captured, Al Mansouri was a graphic designer for a local paper. He was one of nine journalists whose hotel in Sanaa was raided while they were gathered for work, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in previous reports.

Five years later, the Houthi-run public prosecutor's office indicted him with "broadcasting false and malicious news, data and rumours, propaganda and establishing several websites on the internet and social networks to broadcast news and false rumors in support of Saudi-led coalition crimes on Yemen".

The CPJ, Amnesty International and other rights groups all lobbied for Al Mansouri's release, to no avail.

He is expected to gain his freedom this weekend as part of a swap of 887 detainees by the warring sides. Al Mansouri is scheduled to fly from Sanaa to Marib on the third and final day of the exchange.

Joy and pain

Still, according to his family, their feelings are mostly of worry, mixed with joy and pain.

"My mother has suffered a lot through the years. She has become ill and now has chronic diseases from the pain she endured while Tawfiq is in jail," Abdullah said

But the children, he said, are behaving differently.

"Tawakkul has gathered all her school certificates and is putting them together to make her father proud of her. She wants to show him her good grades, and how she has been passing the time in his absence."

Abdullah said his brother always emphasised the importance of education to his children.


Overall, his family say they want to provide Al Mansouri with all the joy he missed while locked up.

"They have come up with dances and songs to play, they've set up a fully equipped room for him. They got him gifts. They're planning all their outings and the Eid programme for celebrations when Ramadan ends," Abdullah said.

Despite the overwhelming joy they feel, the family fears that the person they're welcoming back into their lives will be a ghost of who he once was.

"Tawfiq certainly underwent a lot of brutal torture at the hands of the Houthis," he said.

"When my family was able to visit him in his early years in jail, they saw marks on his body that signified he was tortured. Later, he would tell me over the phone, in secret conversations, that they beat him and tortured him."

The Houthis are notorious for torturing detainees, including journalists. One journalist who was held for just over a year told CPJ that he was questioned repeatedly, punched and kicked and beaten with a stick all over his body. His captors "tied his arms and legs to an iron rod and suspended him from between two desks", CPJ reported, citing the journalist.

Another form of torture, Abdullah said, is the false hope the Houthis give detainees.

"They keep telling them they're getting released and there have been many rounds of talks in past years that gave us that same hope. So we're worried this might happen again."

On Friday, the first round of detainees took off to and from Aden and Sanaa as part of a deal overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Al Mansouri's family have not heard any news from him over the past eight months because he was forcibly disappeared.

"We don't even know which prison he's in or where he is," his brother said

The ICRC said it had checked all detainees before they boarded their flights to ensure that they're fit to fly. But Al Mansouri's family fear the worst based on what they had learnt.

"The last we've heard from him and about him is that he's very ill," Abdullah said

Al Mansouri has diabetes, heart disease, swelling in his limbs and prostate, "and indicators of kidney failure", his brother said, based on conversations the family have had with detainees who were locked up with Al Mansouri.

"They told us of the brutal torture and mistreatment my brother was subjected to."

Still, the release would be a chance for Al Mansouri's eight-year prison stint to end and his wounds to finally heal, his family say.

Updated: April 14, 2023, 12:22 PM