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 US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.