The story started with AFP, and a good reporter, quoting an official in the Ministry of the Interior saying that a number (170) al-Qaeda prisoners were in the process of being released. Then the Yemen Embassy in DC denied the charge, so what exactly is going on? (My mail from random strangers also poses this question in less polite terms.)
First, it seems that while many of the people being released are Islamist militants, few of them are linked to al-Qaeda, at least in a direct way. Many of them seem to be from Abyan, and it appears that the government is gearing up to keep the south in line. So, in other words, they are being let out as a possible para-military force to potentially combat what the government call secessionist elements in the south. This fits with the news from late January that 160 Islamist militants in Abyan under the guidance/leadership of Sami Dayan went on the government's payroll.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify all of this without names. And we only have the names of 20 people who were released. The vast majority of these individuals were arrested following the suicide attack on a military installation in Sayyun in July 2008 and after a follow-up raid in Tarim on August 12 that killed Hamza al-Qu'ayti and four of his comrades. In other words, these were preventive detentions or a case of round up the usual suspects. In December a committee wrote a letter to President Salih, Prime Minister Mujawir and the governor of Hadramawt asking that these men be released (there were 45 men on that list). Now some of them have been.
There is only one problem. Number 12 on the list above, Amr BaSalih, corresponds to the name on a list of al-Qaeda prisoners being held by Yemen, which al-Qaeda has demaned the release of in a public list posted to al-Ikhlas, a prominent jihadi forum (now off-line) back in February 2008. The most charitable reading is that BaSalih was released by mistake, and indeed that is what I'm hearing from some sources in Yemen.
A complete analysis of who the released prisoners are will have to wait until their names come out in the press.