British political prisoner Luke Symons nearly died in Yemen after staff gave him the wrong medicine when he fell seriously ill at a Houthi-run jail in the capital Sanaa, according to a former inmate.
Mr Symons, 29, has been held in Yemen for almost five years after being arrested at a checkpoint in Taez, a city in the country’s south-west. He was detained on suspicion of being a spy after he was found carrying a British passport.
He has never been charged with any offence or put on trial but has been physically abused by jailers who do not take his health problems seriously when he has been ill, according to the former inmate. He has also been left with long-term injuries after he was beaten while in custody.
“They took him to the infirmary … they gave him the wrong injection and they almost killed him,” the former inmate — who declined to be identified because of security concerns — told The National. “His heart started to slow down and he was almost unconscious.”
Mr Symons's family say that he has done nothing wrong but is part of a pattern of arrests by the Houthis in pursuit of financial reward.
The ex-inmate said that Mr Symons was forced to call his family in Cardiff, Wales, to urge them to put pressure on the British and Saudi governments to arrange a prisoner swap that would secure his release.
“He told them he was not a prisoner of war and that it was unjust and immoral,” said the inmate who had direct knowledge of Mr Symons's case.
“They told him to consider it as a service — that it did not change anything for him and he had nothing to lose.
“That’s when they hit him.
“These militias are behaving in completely inhuman ways, without any respect for human rights. They are taking advantage of the situation, without any qualms, to exchange an innocent person who they have known to be innocent for years.”
Mr Symons’s grandfather, Robert Cummings, confirmed that he received a call about the prisoner swap and suspected that his relative had been mistreated.
“I struggled to get a proper answer off him [Luke] about what had happened because these people were always with him,” said Mr Cummings. “He has been beaten for some time.”
The Briton travelled to Yemen in 2012 where he married a local woman. The pair, who now have a young son, tried to leave after the war started but Mr Symons was unable to secure documents for his wife to leave before he was arrested.
Splits within the ranks of the militia have meant that prison authorities refused to release him even after a senior Houthi admitted there was no evidence to suggest he was a spy.
He has been allowed to make phone calls to his family in Cardiff but they have been monitored by the authorities and he has not been able to give them a full account of his life behind bars.
But the former inmate said that Mr Symons was on the edge of despair and was complaining of pains in his shoulder and stomach following earlier beatings during attempts to force him to confess to being a spy.
His torturers tied his arms behind his back, sat him on a chair and beat him all over the body with an iron bar, said the former inmate according to the account given to him by Mr Symons.
“Seeing that he did not want to confess they hit him on the head until he fainted,” he said. “They stopped torturing him when they saw they couldn’t get anything out of him.”
The ex-prisoner said that inmates went for months without seeing the sun and were forced to sleep in cramped cells shared with dozens of other men. “Going out to see the sun is rare — once a month maximum,” he said. “Before that, it could be seven to 10 months before you could see it.”
His account is backed up by Haisam Farran, an American security consultant, who saw the sun only twice in 177 days while he was held in custody in 2015, according to US court documents filed in 2019.
The ex-prisoner’s comments are also in line with reports by rights groups and former inmates who have described being shackled and beaten with iron bars and assault rifles during efforts to force them to make confessions or to extort money from their families.
Prisoners at the jail have included businessmen who were detained to extort money, political opponents of the militia and one inmate who denounced senior Houthis for embezzling humanitarian aid, said the former prisoner.
“One can hear ... before the sun rises, the cries of tortured people,” he said.
The former inmate said prisoners had been left with food poisoning and suffering from severe diarrhoea from beans that had gone rancid after being cooked hours earlier and left in the heat.
Conditions in the cramped and overcrowded cells were stifling, with prisoners struggling to find a place on the ground to sleep. The biggest cells were home to some 40 prisoners, he said.
Prisoners held in cells without toilets in the basement were only allowed to leave to relieve themselves four times a day. They were beaten if they woke guards outside of official times.
Extractor fans were often turned off at night because they disturbed the sleep of guards who were supposed to be on duty outside of their cells, said the former inmate.