Yemen sides in Geneva to negotiate prisoner swap

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

Yemeni Houthi prisoners are pictured upon their arrival at Sanaa airport, following their release by the Arab coalition, on November 28th, 2019. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Yemeni Houthi prisoners are pictured upon their arrival at Sanaa airport, following their release by the Arab coalition, on November 28th, 2019. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

A new round of talks between Yemen's government and the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) on the release of prisoners is set to kick off Friday (September 18th) in Geneva.

The talks were scheduled to start Thursday in Switzerland, but got postponed as members of the government committee have yet to arrive.

The two sides agreed to exchange some 15,000 detainees as part of the Stockholm Agreement, a peace deal brokered by the UN in Sweden in 2018.

There have been sporadic prisoner swaps to date, but the release of 1,420 detainees -- 900 government loyalists and 520 Houthis -- would mark the first large-scale prisoner trade since the war erupted in 2014, AFP reported.

In a Tuesday briefing to the UN Security Council, UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said the new round of negotiations between the two sides would discuss the release of conflict-related prisoners and detainees.

He said a new draft of the Joint Declaration on the ceasefire and revival of peace talks was sent to the two sides as part of the UN efforts to establish peace.

Deputy Minister of Human Rights Majid Fadail serves on the government's committee on prisoners, detainees and forcibly disappeared persons.

He said the meeting is part of efforts to implement the prisoner swap deal under the Stockholm Agreement, and will "work on finding a mechanism for releasing all prisoners as per the all-for-all principle".

This will start with the implementation of agreements reached in Amman, which called for the release of 1,420 prisoners and detainees as a first phase, to be followed by other phases until all prisoners have been released, he said.

Houthi delegation member Abdul Qader al-Murtada said the delegation travelled to Geneva on Tuesday, and expressed hopes that the talks would be a success.

A government source close to Yemen's presidency said the talks will "lay out the final touches" after agreement was reached with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) "on all logistical arrangements", AFP reported.

Talks will focus on names

"The number of detainees who will be released, some 1,420, has been agreed upon already," government delegation member Hadi al-Haij told Al-Mashareq.

"But the dispute is on the names of those who will be released," he said. "This is what we will be discussing."

"This round is scheduled to last for one or two weeks and can be extended if necessary," he added, noting that for the government side, the issue is humanitarian, rather than political.

On the other hand, political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq, the Houthis have attempted to turn the prisoner swap into a political issue.

"The prisoners held by the government are Houthi fighters, while the detainees held by Houthis are civilian activists and university professors who had been arrested at their homes," he added.

"The Houthis later had court judgements issued against some of those prisoners in order to evade their prior obligations to release them," he said.

"The Houthis are manipulating this file although it is purely humanitarian and should not be tied to political issues," he said.

"The UN must work on this and pressure the Houthis to stop their arrests of civilians," he said. "In this way, a solution can be found for this problem if the Houthis honour their obligations and release prisoners and detainees."

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