An innocent British Muslim was tricked into returning to a Houthi-run jail in Yemen in the midst of a mass prisoner exchange after the sudden breakdown of talks over his release.
Luke Symons, 30, who was detained on spurious spying charges, spent another 18 months within Yemen's brutal prison regime after being separated from a bus-load of former inmates on their way to Sanaa’s airport and a flight to freedom in October 2020.
A senior Houthi official collected the married father from a holding centre within hours of the group leaving prison and told him he would be taken to his family in Yemen – but he was instead dumped back at the prison where he was held without charge or trial.
Mr Symons was eventually released after a secret deal involving 11 other foreigners, brokered by Oman and Saudi Arabia, after five years behind bars. He flew back to the UK last month with his Yemeni wife and young son who was only three months old when he went to prison.
“That was the hardest part of being in that prison,” he told The National. "No one ever told you what you did or how long you were going to stay. Sometimes I don’t feel free because I’ve been traumatised. I still dream of being in prison.”
In his first interview since leaving prison, Mr Symons told of how:
- He was battered in an eight-hour torture session that ended only with the call to morning prayer
- Warders hid him in a locked room to avoid a Red Cross visit to repatriate foreign prisoners
- Rival extremist groups fought bloody battles in crowded cells armed with home-made knives
- Guards greeted new prisoners with revving chainsaws and threatened to carve them up
Mr Symons, a Muslim convert, travelled to Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2012 to advance his knowledge of the Islamic faith.
Traumatised by prison guards' horrific treatment
Mr Symons was later arrested in 2017 after he was stopped by a Houthi patrol in Taez and accused of spying because he was carrying a British passport.
He said his captors later admitted they had no evidence on which to hold him and went through the motions of preparing his release every few months without ever letting him go.
But hopes were high that he could be brought home in 2020 during the UN-backed swap involving more than 1,000 prisoners involved in Yemen's civil war – which also led to two American civilians being freed.
Senior Houthi officials had promised a UK government minister that Mr Symons would be released but they reneged on the deal, British officials say. The failure prompted accusations of Houthi double-dealing and criticisms of the UK government for not doing enough to secure his release.
Speaking at his grandparents’ home in Cardiff, Wales, Mr Symons told The National he has been left traumatised after the horrific treatment at the hands of the prison guards.
He said they encouraged fights between inmates who were kept 40 to a small room with a single toilet and forced to take turns lying down on the floor to sleep.
He said that rival extremist groups armed themselves with knives crafted from discarded tin cans. “ISIS were in there, in my room,” he said. “They used to tell everyone if you don’t sleep with one eye open … we’ll slaughter you all. They tried it a few times as well.”
'They hit me so many times with a pole, I kept getting headaches'
He went on an eight-day hunger strike in early 2019 in a protest to try to force his release but woke up in the jail’s hospital wing with a drip in his arm. He was returned to his overcrowded quarters later that day with the drip still attached.
After so many false dawns, Mr Symons said that he only believed he was free only when the plane carrying him and his family arrived in Oman to be met by British officials.
“As soon as I met the ambassador, he said 'do you want to see a doctor?'" he told The National. "I couldn’t help myself, I just started crying. So many years, I wanted to see a doctor. They hit me so many times with a pole, I kept getting headaches.”
My Symons saw himself in a mirror when he arrived at a hotel in Oman, the first time he had seen his image since his initial capture. “I had white hair, my hairline had gone back, I got some wrinkles here,” he said, pointing to his forehead. “They made me tired in prison. I saw an old man. I was quite upset – shocked.”