Human Rights minister vows to shut down private jails
At present the number of these unofficial jails – or any detailed information on their locations – is not known. However, the ministry will begin work on the jails they already have information about. Both the Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry will work to close down the illegal jails.
“I saw villagers in Tihama being jailed in a cow shed, held by the chains used for cows,” said Hussein Ali, who was present people were tortured in a private jail. “Around 20 people were treated like animals in that place, which is owned by the most well-known Tihama sheikh.”
Ali added that the owner of that jail is also a member of parliament.
In 2010, the Ministry of Human Rights forced the cabinet to launch a decree to prevent any new private jails from opening, while punishing those who owned existing jails. However, to date, the decree has not been implemented.
Work on shutting down Yemen’s private jails has been ongoing since 1991. At that time there were private jails in each ministry building to detain those who had disobeyed orders. These jails were successfully closed but represented just one part of a huge problem.
“The culture of private jails has always been a problem; before and after unification in 1990,” said Ali Saleh Taisser, deputy of Human Rights. “But the problem is getting bigger as tribal figures are still powerful and some of them are now in parliament, which gives them more power.”
Human rights activist Majid Al-Madhaji, previously with the Legal Protection for Violence Victims program, which has now ended, said that neither Yemen’s private or public jails meet international standards as good rehabilitation institutions.
“Public jails in Yemen still participating in illegal practices, such as jailing people without arrest warrens and keeping them for more than six months. If this is the reality of public jails, you can imagine what private prisons are like,” Al-Madhaji explained.
Al-Madhaji visited some of these private jails in Hajjah. Most are in narrow houses, which have been abandoned by their residents, he said.
“Most of the private jails are old houses that are no longer livable, with no lighting or good ventilation.”
After 2011’s events the interim government is seeking to address human rights violations as a priority.
Although Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime was toppled, Al-Madhaji said that Yemen’s tribal system also needed to be tackled if the interim government wants to create a civil state.
“Many of those who own private jails joined the youth revolution in a way to protect their positions in the new state,” he explained.
However, Taisser said that having Saleh out of power would ease the process, claiming that Saleh’s regime had a hand behind allowing the tribal sheikhs to open and run private jails.
The cabinet’s 2010 decree would be difficult to implement now, he added.
“After the amnesty law was approved last month for Saleh and his regime, the door for the jail owners to escape from criminal liability is open, we will focus our effort now on just closing down the jails,” said Taisser.
Sheikh Abdullah Bin House Al-Ahmer’s family owns many private jails that were owned by Sheikh Abdullah before his death.
“Although he was the head of the legislative authority, he has these jails; he even used to send some of his prisoners to the Central Security jails when his own jails were full, then when there was a free place he would get them back from the Central Security prison and move them to his own jail – like a deposit,” said Taisser.
Even now that Al-Ahmer is dead, his sons continue these practices. On the Friday of Dignity when 25 protesters were shot by snipers in Sana’a’s Change Square, Al-Ahmer family detained suspected snipers in their private jails.
Inside Change Squares, human rights activists have reported the Islah party detaining many independent youths at its private jails.
Taisser said that these jails can be found in every district and village of Yemen, adding that the tribal system is replacing the rule of law, delegating to a tribal sheikh all the authorities to judge, prosecute and punish people. Sometimes they skip the judicial system completely and jump straight to punishment.