Coronavirus rips through Sanaa prisons, Yemeni doctors say

Health officials say dozens of doctors treating the sick have died

epa08467629 Yemenis walk past historic buildings amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in the old quarter of Sanaa, Yemen, 05 June 2020. The health authorities in war-torn Yemen have not enforced curfews or lockdown measures to curb the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease, despite raised fears the pandemic is rapidly spreading undetected throughout Yemen.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB
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The coronavirus is ripping through Sanaa prisons as Houthi officials continue to deny the spread of the outbreak in the capital, health officials in the rebel-held city told The National on Tuesday.

Doctors in Sanaa said that outside jails, the situation was catastrophic and dozens of health workers on the front lines have caught Covid-19 and died without proper protection or support.

"The pandemic started spreading among the detainees in the central prison and in the political security prison in Sanaa," a doctor in a Sanaa public hospital told The National.

"Many prisoners being detained in the central prison were transferred to Al Kuwait public hospital with coronavirus-like symptoms."

Iran-backed Houthi officials have downplayed the virus even as the UN warned the country could face tens of millions of cases without urgent action.

Yemen has only 496 confirmed cases with 112 deaths, but the government and rebel doctors have no access to laboratories that can process large numbers of test, so the true scale is not being recorded.

Doctors say there are far more cases than the official tallies show.

"The situation in Sanaa is out of control," the doctor said.

"Many doctors and other medical staff in charge of combating the pandemic have died from the virus, while tens of citizens are dying on a daily basis."

He said most people were dying at home with no medical care.

Almost all hospitals in the city have closed their doors over a lack of protective equipment for staff, and of ventilators, testing equipment and drugs for treatment.

The Abductees' Mothers Association, a group representing the families of those held by the rebels, is calling for a prisoner exchange to be implemented to save thousands of lives of those trapped in squalid jails.

"Many prisoners detained in the political security prison in Sanaa contacted their families this month and they were all sick, but everybody is saying that they have the flu," said the group's spokeswoman, Umm Abdullah.

"They couldn't tell the truth because the Houthi men observe them while they talk to their families."

Government officials said the Houthis were delaying a prisoner swap deal hashed out with international mediation in Amman in February.

Abdulqader Al Mortada, the Houthi lead negotiator for the exchange, on May 31 accused the government of not signing the deal, which was mediated by the UN and International Committee for the Red Cross.

Majid Fadel from the government negotiating team denied those claims.

"The Houthi rebels lie as much as they breathe," said Mr Fadel, who is also a deputy in the Human Rights Ministry.

"We agreed on all the suggestions to prove our keenness and desire to end this humanitarian crisis.

"The last round was in Amman where we grudgingly conceded and agreed to exchange 1,420 prisoners as a first stage, then end the swap deal on an all-for-all basis.

"But the Houthis stepped back and refused to free some prisoners included in the first stage of the deal and the matter inflicted a fatal blow to the agreement in Amman.

"We agreed on exchanging 1,420 prisoners from all parties, so all the 1,420 prisoners must be released as agreed on in Amman."

The UN has repeatedly called on all sides in Yemen to immediately release political prisoners as the outbreak of coronavirus spreads.

In March 2020, the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen said that prisoners were particularly vulnerable and must be let go.

"The group of experts urges all parties to the conflict in Yemen to immediately release all detainees and political prisoners being held in political, security and military detention facilities, official and secret alike ... in line with their obligations under international law," the panel said.