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
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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.