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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Meet the Brits protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration this weekend

The British campaigners joining in international anti-racism, pro-women’s rights demonstrations against the new US President.

On Friday 20 January, across the UK, in cities spanning York, Aberdeen, Bradford, Cambridge and London, huge banners will be dropped from bridges, emblazoned with the words: “Bridges Not Walls”.

A tightly coordinated direct action, the intended message is one of solidarity: by standing up for one another’s rights, we can prevent the further marginalisation of vulnerable groups of people. “In London, there are about ten bridges,” says Harry Jefferson-Perry, a 23-year-old gay man who’s involved in the organising. “There’s a bridge run by people fighting Islamophobia, an LGBTQ bridge, and a women’s bridge. It’s about smashing borders – physical and metaphorical. It’s a form of protest against the rise of the far right everywhere.”


Harry Jefferson-Perry. Photo: Malaika Ibreck

The #bridgesnotwalls protest is one of several nation-wide actions taking place in the UK this weekend as Donald Trump is ushered into the White House and attends his first day of presidency. The campaign group Stand Up To Racism is holding a rally outside the US Embassy in London on Friday evening, the day of Trump’s inauguration, with more than 3,000 people confirmed to attend on Facebook and 20 corresponding sister marches set to take place around Britain.

On Saturday, the international Women’s March is scheduled in approximately 600 sister locations and counting, in all 50 states of America, and countries spanning Norway, Nairobi and Japan. In London, around 30,000 people have confirmed attendance to the march, the real number expected to be much higher.

The goal of the Women’s March is a street-level demonstration that women’s rights are human rights. Their manifesto maintains that they’re not directly targeting Trump (it seems they wouldn’t want to give him the credence), but to the kind of racist, sexist and homophobic ideology his presidential campaign spun.

The demonstrations are bigger than the man himself, as illustrated by their apparent global appeal. “It’s about bringing the point home that just because equality is an everyday issue, and it doesn’t go away or rise and fall with who’s in government, that doesn’t mean it’s not urgent,” says Isabel Adomakoh Young, a 24-year-old British-Ghanaian student and activist from West London who will be attending the Women’s March on Westminster this Saturday.


Isabel Adomakoh Young​

Adomakoh Young says she heard about the original Women’s March on Washington in November via black feminists she follows on Twitter. For her, going along to the London march is, in part, an act directed at the US government. “Between Trump and Brexit things aren’t looking good for people suffering oppression,” she says. “As a queer, black, cis female, I’m worried that Trump normalises unacceptable behaviour. He’s also seemingly immune to journalism, fact-checking and video, so I think people being in the street is going to hit home harder than op-eds in middle-class newspapers.”

The second reason she’s going, she says, is to show solidarity with other women: “With social media and technology people get lonely. You read the news and you think you’re the only person having feelings of isolation or, specifically as a woman, feelings of diminishment.”

As well as lobbying with a gender equality campaign group called 50:50 Parliament, for whom she’ll be making a speech in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, Adomakoh Young is also an organising member of the activist group Sisters Uncut, who focus on fighting domestic violence.

However, it’s clear that many of the people who are attending marches and rallies this weekend don’t come from an activism background at all, but have been moved by recent political events to seek out a way to protest. Kimberly Tyler-Shafiq, 41, from Texas, lives in Surrey and works in HR. She is married to a British-Pakistani man with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. When we speak on the phone she tells me that she hasn’t been to a protest since those against the war on Iraq in 2003.

“After the election results I felt devastated,” she says. “We were on the precipice of having the first woman president in the US and I was so happy to cast my vote for a woman. I know I’m from a conservative state but when I saw Texas come in red it still lit a fire in me – people cannot be allowed to get away with what Trump has in terms of racism and sexism. I started looking for groups on Facebook and found the Stand Up To Racism rally.”

Tyler-Shafiq wanted to meet, “likeminded people who want to make a change”, and in this online group she found people with the same agenda. As she sees it, Friday night’s demonstration isn’t an act against democracy, just a message that people “are not going to roll over and play dead”. Tyler-Shafiq plans to take her four-year-old to the event with her.

Over in Ireland, American Fanya O’Donoghue and her Irish husband Donal have similar motivations to Tyler-Shafiq. “After the election I was so stunned and embarrassed for my nation that it spurred me into action,” says Fanya. “I’ve always felt strongly about immigration because that’s affected us. Now I feel like, if we were to go back to the US, what would my husband’s green card mean?”

O’Donoghue decided to set up her own Women’s March on Galway as a response to these feelings. Again, like Tyler-Shafiq, she’s been uninvolved in politics before. “This is the first time I’ve been active like this because it’s the first time politics have made me cry,” she says.

To register her sister march, she contacted the US March on Washington team, and they added her to the admin groups, global Slack messages, and emailed over organising kits, press kits, posters and guiding principles. Then she reached out to Irish non-profits who might be interested in spreading the word; anti-racism groups, pro-choice campaigners and the like.

When asked why the march is relevant to Ireland, Fanya replies, “the rights we want to defend for America apply to every country where women are paid less, have unfair maternity rights or experience sexism”. That’s every country in the world then.

She sees the action as “linking arms”, and wholeheartedly believes that when the 600-odd marches happen on Saturday, people will be forced to pay attention. “Women are like a sleeping giant,” she tells me passionately. “It’s like they say – if you want something done, ask a busy person – and the busiest people are mums and working women. It’s important for my sons to see how powerful a woman is.”

She passes the phone over to her husband and he reiterates her sentiment: “Our kids are half American so they’ve had a bunch of questions about the election at school. We thought: what better way to show them that democracy is an active process than organising our own march? Change starts with people coming together and fighting for their beliefs.”

It’s yet to be seen how many people around the globe attend Saturday’s Women’s Marches, but from estimated attendance it currently looks set to be the biggest global demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protests that Tyler-Shafiq and millions of others attended.

Perhaps it is the open-door policy and lack of specificity that’s seen the marches seized upon by so many disenfranchised groups around the world. “I don’t think people feel obliged to read up or be intellectually infallible before they go,” agrees Adomakoh Young. “It’s just for anyone who is pro-equality. A universal cause to rally around.”

Likewise, Jefferson-Perry encourages anyone to get involved with #bridgesnotwalls. “Look on the website, see who you affiliate, drop in and join them,” he says.

For Tyler-Shafiq, the march will, she hopes, be an outlet for the frustration that her and many other Americans in the UK are experiencing. “It’s hard to sit over here watching what’s going on in my homeland and feeling helpless.” And yet, while it’s “good to be involved as an expat”, she is aligning herself with likeminded Britons who want to influence UK leadership to stand up to homophobia, racism and sexism too.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be complacent about how Trump’s agenda is trickling into British politics because of the close relationship between the two countries,” she says, before adding that this weekend cannot be a one-off. “It’s good that people are making a stand, but it’s important that we get organised all over again when Trump decides to visit the UK.”