Life in a Houthi jail: Luke Symons' brutal eight-hour torture sessions

British Muslim was badly beaten as Yemeni interrogators tried to force him to confess to spying

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The torture started with a single slap after Luke Symons had refused to confess to spying for the UK during his first year in prison and the interrogators decided to change tactics.

He was summoned from his crowded cell at a prison in Sanaa, Yemen and his gaoler started with goading and insults about his appearance. Then he forced Mr Symons to his feet, pushed his chair away and slapped him around the face.

“About seven of them came then," said Mr Symons. "The first one kneed me in the stomach, the next one punched me in the face, another one hit me with a pole on the back of my head.

"That went on from 8 at night until 4 in the morning.”

With his hands bound behind his back he was completely defenceless. He said the brutal attack stopped only with the call to morning prayer.

“I lost consciousness three or four times," Mr Symons told The National. "When I woke up they were still stamping on my head. I stood myself up and just took it."

When it was all over, they dragged him to a desk with a 20-sheet pile of documents and forced his thumb on to an ink pad and pressed it down to make his mark.

That was the extent of his 'confession' throughout his five-year jail term. While the beatings never ended, his interrogators appeared to accept that forcing a confession through extreme violence was destined to fail.

The next time the former kickboxer was summoned for interrogation, they gave him a cup of tea and chocolate and pretended to be his friend.

The beatings never stopped but a senior Houthi official signed a release order in late 2018 admitting that they had no evidence against Mr Symons. But still, he wasn’t released for another three-plus years.

Luke Symons with his grandfather Robert Cummings. Victoria Pertusa / The National

Staying alive

He never knew quite what he had ‘confessed’ to in the documents but was later told he had admitted attacking Houthi fighters using a rocket launcher. Mr Symons said he had never fought the Houthis and had moved around the country to avoid them before a failed attempt to flee with his Yemeni wife led to his arrest in April 2017.

His young family – his wife and son Hoode, now 5 and born just before his arrest – gave him a reason to endure the punishment.

“I had a family outside waiting for me, so I couldn’t do anything silly,” he said, now back at his grandparents’ home in the Welsh capital Cardiff. “But I would have been happy for one of them to kill me there and not go on being in prison. That was the state of mind I was in.”

Mr Symons’ account of life in Yemen’s jails is unremittingly bleak, featuring routine abuse of prisoners, horrific conditions and the manipulation of international humanitarian agencies trying to protect the rights of captives.

His first place of detention in the southern city of Taez was a derelict apartment with holes from tank shells in the walls. One prisoner left through an unlocked door and walked to a local pharmacy to buy medication for his diabetes before returning to custody.

He got beaten for his pains and the 20 or so prisoners moved to another part of the building where their armed guards were aged about 12 and dragged their guns behind them on the ground, Mr Symons said.

Luke Symons. Victoria Pertusa / The National

A week later, Mr Symons was told he was free to go and was about to leave on his motorbike when a car pulled up and he was taken away again at gunpoint by another Houthi faction.

“They told me to wear a blindfold, put me in a car, drove me somewhere – I don't even know where – for like three hours,” he said.

“I thought they were going to kill me and get rid of my body. I could see under the blindfold a bit – and the gun was there in my face with his hand on the trigger.”

He was taken to a prison in Ibb, a town north of Taez where he was kept on his own outdoors in burning heat, sleeping on the ground using his slippers for a pillow and his jacket as a blanket.

An interrogator questioned him while holding a Taser close to his ear and encouraging him to confess to being a British spy. The interrogator didn’t discharge the Taser – and Mr Symons didn’t confess.

Rule by fear

He was held there for about four months before being moved to Sanaa.

“They have a policy," Mr Symons told The National. "What they do when new prisoners come is to scare them. So they start putting the chainsaws on, saying – 'which one’s first?'”

The prison guards also ostentatiously sharpened knives and hit the inmates with bats on their way into the jail, he said. “I had special treatment because I wasn’t Yemeni," he said. "They pulled me aside … they started smacking me in the head.”

He was kept in a cramped, tiny room with 24 people and only one toilet. The inmates had to squeeze into a space less than the width of two hands if they wanted to lie down to sleep.

Disturbances in an adjoining room meant the numbers rose to 40 and they had a shift system to sleep. If anyone used the toilet, they lost their place. Mr Symons said he saw the sun once in five months.

One sick man was taken for tests for suspected tuberculosis. “He came back positive," said Mr Symons. "They put him back in the room, where he died.”

Disputes and fighting were rife, with bitter enemies captured by the Houthis forced together in the tiny rooms.

He said: “There were different groups: ISIS, Al Qaeda … loads of groups in the same room, they don’t get along with each other. So every day there’s fights, there’s people getting stabbed, people getting sliced up.

“The guards, if there’s no fights in the day, they open the flap on the door and they say, 'what’s going on?' They want you to fight, so they can bring you out and beat you up. They used to get fun out of it.”

He tried to keep out of the fights and found common cause when he moved to another room with a French inmate who was being targeted by ISIS. They exercised together by running on the spot. The Frenchman was released shortly after Mr Symons' aborted release in October 2020.

During his five years behind bars without charge or trial, Mr Symons received a single visit from an official from the UN Special Envoy for Yemen in April 2019. He was taken from the prison to a “large mansion” for the meeting.

At the meeting, Mr Symons says he was told that Red Cross officials would visit the jail in a couple of weeks to take away foreign prisoners. Just before the scheduled visit, he was locked up in a small room and never saw anyone. He later learnt from other inmates – by speaking to them from his solitary confinement using the prison's water pipes – that Bengali, Indian, Somali and Ethiopian prisoners had all left.

Lost in translation

Communication with the outside world was also sporadic and unreliable, not helped by the three-way communication between Mr Symons, his family in Yemen and those in Cardiff.

Because of a mistranslation, Mr Symons for two months mistakenly thought that his beloved grandmother in Cardiff had died.

“I made a promise to myself, if my Nan died while I was in prison I’m not going out of this prison except in a coffin,” he said.

British MPs are conducting an inquiry into state hostage-taking, but are focusing on Iran and higher-profile cases, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. But the level of brutality experienced by Mr Symons in Yemen’s jail system is of a different and more horrifying order, says his family.

Luke Symons. Victoria Pertusa / The National

The treatment has clearly taken its toll. Although he has been passed as physically healthy, Mr Symons says he suffers from lapses of concentration and struggles to maintain his patience. At one point, he is unable to follow his train of thought and struggles to remember details about the day of his day of his release from jail.

He is now seeking counselling and treatment to deal with the long-term effects of his unjust detention.

“I can’t sleep with the door closed," he said. "For a week or two, I didn’t want to be with anyone. I wanted to be in a closed room. I couldn’t sleep.

“Sometimes I don’t feel free because I’ve been traumatised,” he said, as his energetic young son dashes around the house. “I don’t have no future, so I look out for my son now.”

Updated: May 20, 2022, 5:19 PM