Hundreds of Yemeni children 'teeter on the edge of execution'
“For me, life is meaningless as long as my freedom is robbed, and my home that spoiled me is no longer existent,” wrote the 28-year-old, from his prison cell.
Until recently, when a local children’s rights organization intervened on his behalf, Haikal was slated for execution. While the possibility of death at the hands of the state is still a possibility, SEYAJ Organization for Childhood Protection, was able to convince a judge to reconsider the execution due to circumstantial evidence regarding the crime and Haikal’s age.
His family says he was only 16 when he and other youths in the Sawan area were arrested under suspicion of the murder of a local man. According to his brother Saddam Haikal, Walid was coerced into admitting to the crime.
“We were told by the Criminal Investigation Department in Sana'a that Walid confessed to committing the murder, but he was actually forced to admit that,” Saddam told the Yemen Times. He says Walid was tortured before he ever made it to the prosecutor’s office.
Besides his professions of innocence, Walid’s case highlights Yemen’s legal system's loopholes that allow for the executions of children. Although his family says he was two years younger, prosecutors convinced a judge that Walid was 18 when the murder took place, therefore making him eligible for the death penalty.
Walid’s family had no documents to prove otherwise. According to several human rights groups, a majority of Yemenis do not have a birth certificate. A lack of coroners in Yemen makes it difficult for judges to determine the ages of those without court papers. It’s reported that Yemen has only two coroners for the whole country.
This is not the first case of what human rights groups call “unjust” execution verdicts. More than 100 individuals who are currently under age of 18, or were at the time of their accused crime, are subject to the death sentence, according to SEYAJ.
On Dec. 3, Hind Al-Barti, who was believed to be under the age of 17, was executed, just five days before Yemen’s the first conference on human rights in Sana’a. According to the prosecution, Al-Barti killed a woman by setting her on fire.
Both international and local human rights groups had been following her case, advocating for a reexamination of her age.
Judge Nehad Mohsen Fadhl, the manager of the Children, Women and Human Rights department in the Ministry of Justice, said she was shocked to hear the execution had been carried out.
“We had referred the case to the general prosecutor to deal with it and we were waiting for his decisions,” she said. “We don’t know why they carried out the capital punishment so quickly since she was under the age of 17.”
Judges are often seen as the culprit in these cases.
Speaking to the Yemen Times, Fadhl called for the Supreme Judicial Council to review the performance of judges and hold them accountable for wrongful verdicts.
She said the Ministry of Justice has received several complaints about judges.
However, the lack of oversight, makes it very difficult to question a judge, Fadhl added.
Ahmed Al-Qurashi, the head of SEYAJ Organization for Childhood Protection, also believes in order to stop the execution of children, judges must be held accountable.
“Yemeni judges should not be immune from punishment if they issue wrong verdicts,” he said. “I consider the judges who issue such verdicts as murders or accomplices to murder.”
These childhood violations are not just limited to the state. Al-Qurashi says tribesmen are known to sentence children to death.
Yemen has ratified several international agreements that prevent the execution of children.
Article 37 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children stipulates that “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below 18 years of age.”
But, human rights activists say the government has signed these conventions and agreements with the aim of receiving financial support from international community without serious intentions of implementation.
“Several children have been executed on the basis of illegitimate verdicts,” said a lawyer, Akram Noman.
Criticizing the role Yemeni lawyers play, Akram Noman, an attorney himself, said, “Unfortunately, some Yemeni lawyers have no legal awareness about this issue.”
Although there are a few lawyers who are well versed in defending children, and often provide their services for free, many cases fall through the cracks as families cannot afford defense attorneys.
“I follow my son’s case alone because his father died recently,” said Um Nasser Al-Harqadi, who has spent the last three years trying to exonerate her son of murder charges.
“I have no money to follow the case. I’m bankrupt and old,” she told the Yemen Times. “My son has lost his future.”
Many families work relentlessly to help their imprisoned children. But, often their pleas for help go unheard.
The father of Mohammed Taher Samoom, has been travelling between Ibb, where his son is imprisoned, and Sana’a since his son was arrested 14 years ago. He says his son is innocent on death row. He comes to the capital city to ask for assistance from human rights organizations.
“People who promised to help me release my son let me down. I don’t work except to get justice for my son,” said the tired father.
Women: bearer of honor
A researcher, Atiaf Al-Wazir, said there are many stories of childhood executions that never reach the media.
She said many women in prison are afraid to tell their stories. This is because of a variety of reasons, including the "shame" imprisonment often brings their families.
“Woman are the bearers of honor, and any woman in prison, no matter the reasons - even if she is innocent - believes that her situation "shames" her family,” Al-Wazir said.
Children in dirty prisons
Even the children who are lucky enough to evade a death sentence, meet an equally troubling fate of a life in prison.
Dhikra Al-Wahidi, a human rights journalist, told the Yemen Times that children in prison suffer from psychological and health problems and some of them try to commit suicide.
“Some of them are afraid that they will be subjected to sexual harassment from prisoners or soldiers,” she said. “I met some mothers of those children who were heart broken, crying outside the prison, trying without success to provide their children with proper food.”
Al-Wahidi said some mothers are forced to bribe soldiers to see their children.
“I saw a mother hugging her child and sobbing uncontrollably, saying that her child is absolutely innocent while soldiers were scoffing at her.”