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
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war