Al-Hudaydah, Yemen – Already with one of the world’s highest death penalty rates, Yemen is increasingly jailing and executing people who committed crimes as children, because of a lack of birth certificates and a failing justice system, human rights campaigners say.
Mariam al-Batah, 19, is one death row inmate facing a firing squad. She cuts a vulnerable figure in al-Hudaydah’s overcrowded Hodeida Central Prison, on Yemen’s western coast. For three years al-Batah has called the squalid surroundings home. She was sentenced to death for murder when she was 15-years old.
Al-Batah’s case is a common one for Yemen’s death row juveniles – 22 in total, according to Human Rights Watch. From a rural, illiterate background, her family – like an estimated 80 percent of the country’s population – failed to register her birth, with tragic consequences.
Al-Batah’s father married her off as a second wife to an older man when she was just 12. She says her husband repeatedly beat and starved her, and locked her in a room for weeks at a time.
“Proving one’s age is a huge issue in Yemen in these cases.“
– Priyanka Motaparthy, Human Rights Watch
One day, when the child of her husband’s first wife accidentally unlocked her door, al-Batah recalls rushing out in a “disorientated and dizzy” state. She violently hurled the child to the ground, killing it immediately. She was promptly arrested, and a court condemned al-Batah to death.
With no birth certificate to prove she was under 18 – the legal age to try an adult for murder – the prosecution and judge ignored her pleas. Under Yemeni law, children 15 years and older can be tried as adults, but can only receive up to 10 years imprisonment if convicted of murder.
Al-Batah, who delivered a stillborn child in prison, says her husband’s first wife forgave her. But her own family has disowned her, and she pins all her hope on an appeal.
“Proving one’s age is a huge issue in Yemen in these cases,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, a Human Rights Watch researcher.
“But there is a second issue: even in cases when juvenile offenders and lawyers were able to produce strong evidence suggesting they were under 18 for their alleged crime, judges and prosecutors have disregarded Yemeni law and called for death sentences,” Motaparthy tells Al Jazeera.
Kids on death row
Although Yemen’s penal code banned juvenile executions in 1994, reports say 186 are being currently tried for murder and could face the death penalty. Three of them – Mohammed Taher Sumoom, Walid Hussein Haikal, and Mohammad al-Tawil – had their executions given a green light by former President Ali Abdulah Saleh before he left office in February last year. Yemen’s president must sign a decree as the final step before an execution is carried out.
|A photo from Hodeidah Central Prison in 2010 [Getty Images]|
Yemen is signatory to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which bars the death penalty for those who commit murder under age 18.
However, international and Yemeni laws have not stopped Yemen’s presidents from signing juvenile execution orders once appeals are exhausted, and 15 have been killed in the past five years.
Adults can receive death sentences for murder, honour crimes, rape, armed robbery and even sorcery. Most executions are conducted in prison courtyards with families and officials present, by shooting into the back of a prone prisoner.
In January, 77 outraged juveniles in Sana’a Central Prison mounted a high-profile hunger strike protesting the death sentence handed down to Nadim al-Aza’azi, who was confirmed by a court doctor to have been 15 years old at the time of his crime.
Al-Aza’azi, who is rail thin and jittery, characteristics he attributes to his perpetual state of anxiety, is charged with a family honour crime. He comforts fellow inmate, Mua’d Ghanem, 16, whose murder trial is still ongoing.
The prosecution’s doctor has diagnosed Ghanem as an adult. His contorted face fights back tears when he talks about the beatings and electrocution that led to what he calls a forced confession. Ghanem has been disowned by his family and is frightened by the violence of prison life.
“I die 1,000 times a day in here,” he says.
‘Powerless and alone’
The juveniles look on in despair at the recent execution of schoolgirl Hind al-Barti, shot dead by firing squad in Taiz last December.
Convicted of killing another girl by dousing her in petrol and setting her on fire, al-Barti quietly maintained her innocence. It appears powerful families in her rural community bullied her into silence, Motaparthy says, and the court threw out her birth certificate as evidence, which verified she was 15 when the crime was committed.
“She was trying to reduce potential danger to her family,” explains Motaparthy. “It was very clear that she made her decisions when she was very young, and that she felt powerless and alone when she was making them.”
Al-Barti told Human Rights Watch in March 2012 she was forced to confess after police officers beat and threatened her with rape. When al-Barti’s controversial case drew international media attention, the Yemeni government rushed her execution without notifying the families and public.
“We are not only outraged that child offenders continue to be executed in Yemen, in flagrant contravention of international law, but we are also deeply concerned over the increased number of sentences of capital punishments pronounced against children,” said Jean Zermatten, chair of UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, after the execution.
Organisations such as UNICEF are working with the government on birth registration – especially in rural areas where the majority of the Yemen’s 25 million population live – as a crucial step to address the execution of juvenile offenders.
Age determination ‘hoax’
Sevag Kechichian, an Amnesty International researcher, agrees that international standards to determine age are key. The examiner is hired by the prosecution and is “typically biased”, and the types of examinations are often “inadequate”, he says.
“In many cases the prosecution suggests a medical examiner check the juvenile, but often this is a hoax, and they don’t even see the juvenile. When they do, it is unclear what type of practices they use,” says Kechichian.
“In reports they use vague language that sometimes evaluates bone density, or other times they check teeth. It is known that these only give you a margin of the age – they are not exact.”
Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights says it is taking steps to address the execution of juveniles.
“We are holding high-level discussions within the government about this,” spokesperson Fouad al-Ghassari told Al Jazeera. “We are asking the justice system for more time. We need to develop a good system and specialists to determine birthdates, and international support.”
“We are not only outraged that child offenders continue to be executed in Yemen … but we are also deeply concerned over the increased number of sentences.“
– Jean Zermatten, chair UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
Ala Rumaneh, 20, is an intensely quiet inmate in al-Hudaydah’s fetid men’s prison, built for 400 inmates but that holds three times as many. The stressful conditions have sparked prison breaks and riots in the past. “This is a place of suffering,” Rumaneh says.
On death row for shooting an elderly policeman whom he says tried to rape him on a beach, Rumaneh says he was forced to confess when he was 17-years old. During the trial his birth certificate was ignored, and he was sentenced to die.
In a 30-page report released last Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said several juvenile offenders told interviewers that torture, beatings and threats had elicited their false confessions.
Rumaneh’s younger brother Mohammed, 18, is a soft-spoken English student who visits his condemned brother every week.
“I feel very scared for Ala,” he says quietly. “It is known that the majority of death penalty cases are followed through.”