Family pleas for Briton held in Houthi jail

Luke Symons was accused of being a spy for Briton

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on February 26, 2019. Prime Minister Theresa May faced the threat Tuesday of more ministerial resignations over her refusal to rule out the possibility of Britain crashing out of the European Union without a deal on March 29. / AFP / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The family of a Briton held in a Houthi-run prison in Yemen have spoken out for the first time in nearly two years to express frustration about diplomatic efforts to secure his release.

Luke Symons, 26, was detained in 2017 and accused of being a British spy when he went to collect some money wired to him in the capital Sanaa.

His family denied the claims and said that the only reason he had been detained was because of his nationality. They claimed that he had been beaten while he was in custody.

Mr Symons, who converted to Islam as a teenager in the Welsh city of Cardiff, travelled to Yemen to deepen his knowledge of the Muslim faith and teach English before the outbreak of major fighting in the country. He married a local woman and they have a two-year-old son.

His case was raised in the UK parliament this week when his local MP, Kevin Brennan, pressed for government action in the case.

Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said it was a “distressing case” but said the UK was unable to offer assistance to him in prison in rebel-held Sanaa because of the lack of British consular officials on the ground.

“We appreciate that he was in Yemen before the conflict broke,” Mr Hunt told MPs. “We’ll continue to exert every effort we can to try to find a way to get him home.”

The family have kept their silence about the case on Foreign Office advice but spoke with the BBC to express their frustration that more could be done to improve his plight.

Before his arrest, Mr Symons and his then pregnant wife had made it to Djibouti and neighbouring Ethiopia after their home in the southern city of Taiz was damaged during bombing.

They returned to Yemen after being told that only Mr Symons could travel to the UK because his wife had lost her documents during the conflict. He was subsequently detained.

“If that had given her permission to go with him at the beginning he would be here safe now with his wife,” said Daoud Ali Salaman, the chairman of the South Wales Islamic Centre, who has been helping the family.

Mr Symons’ grandfather Robert Cummings told the BBC that they had received word that he was no longer accused of spying, but he remained behind bars in a prison in Sanaa, which held a number of foreign inmates.

Mr Symons called his grandfather for the first time in January and told him that he was planning to refuse food until he was released. “I haven’t done anything,” he said in the phone call that was recorded.

Mr Brennan told the BBC that it was frustrating that Mr Cummings felt he had “more assistance from the local Yemeni community in Cardiff than the [UK] government itself.”

Human Rights Watch reported last year that it had documented dozens of cases of “arbitrary and abusive” detention by Houthis and forces loyal to the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Former detainees told the rights group that Houthi officers beat them with rods, sticks and shackled them to the walls.