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
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism