Young, behind bars and in peril in Yemen

“Nothing is worse than life in a Yemeni prison.”


The Yemen donors meeting in London this week have plenty of issues to focus on, but they should speak up about one forgotten group in Yemen – youth offenders on death row.

Last month, as I entered the special wing of Sanaa Central Prison that is reserved for Yemen’s child offenders, I heard a most beautiful sound. A young man was singing in prayer: "I tasted being an orphan through the cup of hardships - and what bitter taste did it have … I am the one who stayed awake complaining then crying - Oh God, I have no one else except you left."

His voice cracked and tears glistened on his cheeks as he evoked the call to prayer.  The 50 or so other young men crowded into the room were hushed, as if mesmerized.

I was at the prison on behalf of Human Rights Watch. I had gone there to interview some of the young people held under sentence of death for crimes they allegedly committed as children.

I noticed a full box of bread rolls that looked untouched at the entrance to the cell, although it was well past breakfast time.

The food was still there uneaten because all 77 young men imprisoned in the child offender wing had begun a hunger strike on 26 January. Days earlier, Sanaa’s court of first instance had sentenced one of their cellmates to death after convicting him of murder. The young man, Nadim Azazi, says he was only 16 at the time of the alleged crime. 

“If they kill Nadim, they will surely kill all of us,” said one youth, who is also under sentence of death, as the young men clustered around me, eager to tell me and anyone else who might be interested about the message they seek to convey to the world beyond their prison walls.

Some of these young men have not received a single visitor in years. Many said their families had rejected them the moment they were arrested, and have refused to have any further contact with them. The singer said  he had not been able to enroll in any of the school classes available at the prison because his family, who have shunned him since the day he was imprisoned, refused to bring or send his school records.

The hunger strikers ended their protest on 7 February after the office of Yemen’s president agreed to suspend the execution of Muhammed Al-Qassem, another young man who is held in Ibb central prison and was scheduled for execution on February 6. The evidence suggests that he too was still a child when the crime for which he was sentenced took place. This stay of execution represents a small but important victory in Yemen’s treatment of such cases, the prosecution deciding to postpone the execution until his age is verified.

Yemen adopted a trail-blazing legal prohibition on using the death penalty against child offenders – those under 18 at the time the crime was committed - in 1994, before most other Middle Eastern countries. In practice, however, judges often ignore that prohibition and impose death sentences on those too young who, in many cases, cannot prove their age because in Yemen most births are not adequately registered.

Three more young men face imminent execution although they are believed to have been under 18 at the time of the crimes for which they were sentenced. At least 19 others are in prison on death row awaiting possible execution.

Despite the stay of  Muhammed Al-Qassem’s execution, the day-to-day existence of the child offenders in Sanaa central prison remains the same. They occupy two rooms that housed 42 prisoners in December 2012 but just two months later accommodate almost 90. One room, in which about 40 young men live, contains 24 beds and just two toilets.

These child offenders have many needs, which they have laid out in letters to Yemeni government officials.

One of their main complaints is that the prison authorities allow them to go out into the open air for only one hour each day, when they can exercise in the prison yard. The yard is used by adult inmates during the rest of the day. The prison staff need to make more time and space for detained children free from adults who would jeopardize their safety.

They also want to be tried in juvenile rather than adult courts and to receive fair trials before judges who uphold the law and respect the prohibition on sentencing people to death for crimes committed as children.

Additionally, they want the Yemeni authorities to reconsider the excessive and unjust sentences that the courts have imposed, including cases in which they say prosecutors falsified documents to make it appear that they were over 18 at the time of the alleged crime. They want to be able to have a lawyer of their choosing to help defend them, and they want to see a medical committee established to scientifically determine the ages of alleged child offenders.

Finally, the young prisoners want to serve sentences closer to their home towns, and better living conditions in prison and an end to degrading treatment by prison guards.

Human Rights Watch, in a new report , is urging the Yemeni government to observe in practice what its own and international law both require, by reforming  its system for prosecuting child offenders and halting  executions in all of their cases.

Despite the harsh and perilous realities with which he must contend, Nadim told me that he is determined to keep fighting to overturn his sentence.  “Life here in prison is the worst,” he told me. “Nothing is worse than life in a Yemeni prison.”

Belkis Wille is the Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch

Sanaa's Old City. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Caroline Lucas: The Prime Minister's narrow focus risks our security

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world.

The protection of national security is the first duty of any government. In the dangerous world in which we live -where threats range from terrorist attacks, to public health emergencies and extreme weather events – we all want to feel safe in the knowledge that the government is acting in our best interests.

David Cameron’s speech yesterday marked a change in tone in this government’s defence policies. The MOD is emerging from the imposition of austerity long before other departments as ministers plan to spend £178bn on buying and maintaining military hardware over the next decade.

There is no easy solution to the threats facing Britain, or the conflicts raging across the world, but the tone of Cameron’s announcement – and his commitment to hiking up spending on defence hardware- suggests that his government is focussing far more on the military solutions to these serious challenges, rather than preventing them occurring in the first place.

Perhaps Cameron could have started his review by examining how Britain’s arms trade plays a role in conflict across the world. British military industries annually produce over $45 billion (about £30 billion) worth of arms. We sell weapons and other restricted technologies to repressive regimes across the world, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Kazakhstan and China. Furthermore Britain has sent 200 personnel in Loan Service teams in seven countries: Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – helping to train and educate the armed forces of those countries.  Any true review of our security should certainly have looked closely at the effects of our arms industry- and the assistance we’re giving to powers in some of the most unstable regions on earth.

At the heart of the defence review is a commitment to what Cameron calls Britain’s “ultimate insurance policy as a nation’ – the so-called “independent nuclear deterrent”. The fact remains that our nuclear arsenal is neither “independent” – it relies on technology and leased missiles from the USA, nor is it a deterrent. As a group of senior military officers, including General Lord Ramsbotham and the former head of the armed forces Field Marshal Lord Bramall wrote in a letter to the Times “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism.”

The cold truth is that France’s nuclear weapons didn’t protect Parisians against Isis terrorists, and our own nuclear weapons cannot be claimed to make us safer than Germany, Spain or Italy. The unending commitment to these weapons, despite the spiralling costs involved and the flimsy evidence in their favour, seems to be closer linked to international grandstanding than it does our national security. Likewise the Government’s further investment in drones, should be looked at closely, with former defence chiefs in the USA having spoken against these deadly pilotless aircraft and describing their use as a “failed strategy” which has further radicalised populations in the Middle East. A serious review of our defence strategy should have looked at the possibility of alternatives to nuclear proliferation and closely investigated the effectiveness of drones.

Similarly the conclusions of the review seem lacking when it came to considering diplomacy as a solution to international conflict. The Foreign Office, a tiny department in terms of cost, is squeezed between Defence and the (thankfully protected) Department for International Development. The FCO has already seen its budget squeezed since 2010, and is set for more cuts in tomorrow’s spending review. Officials in the department are warning that further cuts could imperil the UK’s diplomatic capacity. It seems somewhat perverse that that Government is ramping up spending on our military – while cutting back on the department which aims to protect national security by stopping disputes descending into war. 

In the government’s SDSR document they categories overseas and domestic threats into three tiers. It’s striking that alongside “terrorism” and “international military conflict” in Tier One is the increasing risk of “major natural hazards”, with severe flooding given as an example. To counteract this threat the government has pledged to increase climate finance to developing countries by at least 50 per cent, rising to £5.8 billion over five years. The recognition of the need for that investment is positive but– like the continual stream of ministerial warm words on climate change – their bold statements are being undermined by their action at home.

This government has cut support for solar and wind, pushed ahead with fracking and pledged to spend vast sums on an outdated and outrageously expensive nuclear power station owned in part by the Chinese state. A real grasp of national security must mean taking the action needed on the looming threat of energy insecurity and climate change, as well as the menace of terrorism on our streets.

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world. It’s crucial we do not allow the barbarous acts carried out on the streets of Paris, in the skies above Egypt, the beaches of Tunisia or the hotels of Mali to cloud our judgement about what makes us safer and more secure in the long term.  And we must ensure that any discussion of defence priorities is broadened to pay far more attention to the causes of war, conflict and insecurity. Security must always be our first priority, but using military action to achieve that safety must, ultimately, always be a last resort.  

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.