Exhausted Briton Luke Symons in ‘good spirits’ after release from Yemen jail

Campaigners had pushed British government to exploit a window of opportunity during Yemen ceasefire to free Luke Symons

Briton Luke Symons was released on Sunday after spending five years in a Houthi jail. Photo: Family handout
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A British man was released after spending five years in a Yemen prison following a concerted diplomatic push during a nationwide ceasefire in the country's long-running conflict, rights groups and his MP said on Monday.

Luke Symons, who was working as a teacher before his arrest, was released on Sunday along with 11 other foreign prisoners held by the Houthi rebels following a deal that involved the Omani and Saudi governments.

Mr Symons had been held without trial or charge since 2017, when he was detained after being stopped at a checkpoint in the southern city of Taez. He was accused of being a spy when authorities discovered he was carrying a British passport, though both he and his family have repeatedly denied the accusations.

His family have accused the British government of failing to push hard enough for his release, even as France and the US managed to bring some of their citizens out of Houthi-run prisons.

Mr Symons, 30, was “inexplicably” dropped from a mass prisoner exchange deal in October 2020 in which two US citizens returned home.

Rights group Amnesty International, Mr Symons’s family and his MP met UK foreign ministry officials on April 13 to press them to exploit a window of opportunity during the ceasefire, urging them to use their strong relationship with Saudi Arabia to bring Mr Symons home.

Kevin Brennan, the Labour MP for Cardiff West, told Parliament last week that it was vital for the UK to use its influence and its “much-boasted relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to explore any avenue to achieve Luke’s release”.

Days later, Mr Symons was released and taken to an airport in Sanaa, where he was reunited with his Yemeni wife and their 5-year-old son.

The Omani government said that it then flew Mr Symons and his family, along with 11 other prisoners, to Muscat. He is expected to return to Britain to be reunited with his family in the Welsh capital Cardiff later this week.

The UK government declined to give further details on the nature of the deal beyond comments on Sunday by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who welcomed the release and thanked the Omani and Saudi governments.

An exhausted Mr Symons last night spoke to his family in the UK for the first time since his release and he is said to be in good spirits and looking forward to returning home after medical checks.

“It’s great news after five long years and much campaigning by Luke’s family and myself in Parliament,” said Mr Brennan.

He said that serious questions remained about the treatment of Mr Symons. He fled to Djibouti after the war began but was forced returned to Yemen because he was not able to secure UK travel documents for his wife.

“There are significant questions to be answered about what happens to families who are in that situation … and the kind of support and assistance they are given at a consular level when conflict breaks out,” said Mr Brennan.

Mr Symons married his wife in Yemen in 2014 and the couple's son was born months before he was arrested. His family had become increasingly concerned about his physical and mental health, and he had received only one visit from a UN official.

He later told his family that he was taken out of the prison for the UN meeting but guards were within earshot during discussions, meaning he was unable to give a full account of his treatment. But former prisoners told the family that Mr Symons had been beaten and treated badly in prison during attempts to force a confession.

“Symons was an innocent victim of the conflict in Yemen and should never have been detained in the first place,” said Eilidh Macpherson of Amnesty International.

“The unbearable conditions he faced — including solitary confinement — were taking a terrible toll on Luke’s well-being, with his mental and physical health suffering.”

Mr Symons’s release could signal the start of a mass prisoner swap similar to that which occurred in 2020.

The Houthis have made a new offer to the UN that includes the release of 200 prisoners from each of the warring parties in Yemen, Yemeni television channel Al Masirah TV reported.

Last month, Yemen's warring parties discussed the possible prisoner swap, but no final agreement was reached.

British MPs are investigating state-backed hostage-taking after complaints that the UK’s diplomatic service has fallen short in its efforts to secure the release of Britons abroad.

The inquiry was announced following the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori by Iran after Britain finally settled a debt linked to a 1970s aborted arms deal.

Timeline

2012: Mr Symons, from Cardiff, Wales, travels to Saudi Arabia before moving to Yemen, where he meets his wife in 2014.

March 2015: Yemen’s president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi is forced to flee after an offensive by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

August 2015: Coalition ground troops land in the southern port city of Aden.

November 2016: The couple have a son.

April 2017: Mr Symons is detained and accused of being a British spy after he is stopped at a checkpoint in the capital Sanaa.

November 2018: A Yemeni official, who claims to be overseeing Mr Symons’s file, says he will be released in the “coming days”. Nothing happens.

December 2018: A senior member of the Houthi decision-making body demands the release of Mr Symons — but local officials ignore the order.

March 2019: Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s foreign secretary at the time, raises the case with Yemeni authorities on a trip to the Gulf.

April 2019: An official for the UN special envoy for Yemen meets Mr Symons for the first time after he is taken out of prison. The official reports he is in good health.

May 2019: The family speak out for the first time out of frustration over the failures of the UK and UN to secure his release.

March 2020: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls for a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen.

April 2020: Foreign Office minister James Cleverly calls for the release of Mr Symons as Ramadan approaches and highlights the risks from coronavirus in the country’s unhygienic jails.

September 2020: The internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels agree in Switzerland to exchange more than 1,000 prisoners in the largest swap in the conflict as ceasefire talks continue.

October 2020: The exchange starts with the release of two American citizens but Mr Symons is left behind.

May 2021: Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, writes to Houthi leader Abdulmalik Al Houthi, urging him to release Mr Symons as the fourth anniversary of his arrest nears.

April 2022: Mr Symons is released, along with 11 other foreign prisoners, and is reunited with his wife and 5-year-old son. They are all flown to Oman.

Updated: April 25, 2022, 4:11 PM
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