Yemeni soldier dies in Houthi detention as prisoner swap deal languishes

Pro-government forces say the prisoner died because of rebel mistreatment

Anas al-Sarrari pushes his wheelchair in his home in Marib, Yemen in this July 29, 2018 photo. The activist recalled how after 60 days of being hung by his wrists from the ceiling and being beaten in a prison of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, he was thrown into a cell and discovered his legs no longer worked. He spent four more months on the cell floor, often banging his head on the wall in desperation. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
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A Yemeni soldier died in a Houthi detention centre in Hodeidah on Sunday, as a prisoner exchange deal agreed to between the rebels and government in December languishes.

Ahmed Ismail Hasan Jeilan, 38, a fighter with the pro-government Al Amalikah Brigades was detained by the Houthis in February. His comrades say he was in good health when captured.

In detention, his health deteriorated as an injury to his spinal column failed to heal, according to the Houthi committee in charge of implementing the United Nations-backed prisoner exchange agreement.

The rebels claimed they had earlier tried to release Jeilan.

“We sent a memo to the ICRC [the International Committee of the Red Cross] in May 2019 urging them to hand the wounded prisoner over to the other side but the ICRC replied to tell us that [pro-government forces] didn’t allow access to the site were the prisoner was detained with our forces in Al Duraihimi,” the Houthi prisoner committee said.

However, pro-government forces in Hodiedah disputed this claim and said Jeilan died because of torture.

"Our soldier was detained by the Houthi militia in Al Duraihimi City four months ago, he wasn't suffering any injury when they captured him," Col Wathah Al Dubaish, the spokesman the Joint Forces in Hodeidah, told The National.

“We have accurate information that our soldier died under brutal torture,” he continued. “They kept him alone in a dark room and would take him out to hang him from a tree and beat him brutally in public.”

Col Al Dubaish said a Houthi fighter shot Jeilan in captivity and he was not provided with adequate medical care.

“Neither the ICRC nor we received any request from the rebels to save the prisoner’s life,” he said. “We contacted the ICRC and they rejected the Houthi claims. They said they didn’t receive such request from ever.”

The ICRC did not respond to requests for comment.

Houthi rebels have faced numerous previous accusations of torture, including beating prisoners with rods, electrocution, burning with blowtorches and drilling with power tools.

Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al Houthi says torture is “not part of our norms or values”.

However a Yemeni activist group, the Abductees’ Mothers Union, has documented more than 1,000 instances of torture in an network of secret prisoner in recent years. Last December, the group reported at least 126 prisoners had died in Houthi detention.

Houthi jails hold thousands of prisoners, often in inhumane conditions. Government representatives presented a list of 8,576 detainees to the Houthis in Sweden in December as part of an exchange agreement.

Jeilan’s death is the latest obstacle to implementing the deal.

UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Monday that he was disappointed by the lack of progress.

“I call on the parties to prioritise the implementation of the exchange of prisoners in good faith and to demonstrate the required flexibility to make it a reality, for the sake of peace and perhaps even more importantly for the sake of thousands of Yemeni families who long to be reunited and are extremely disappointed that this has not yet happened,” he said.