(New York) - The Yemeni government should immediately halt plans to execute Muhammad Tahir Thabit Samum and revoke his death sentence, Human Rights Watch said today.
Samum is scheduled to be executed as early as January 19, 2011, for a murder he was accused of committing when he said he was still a child. Both Yemeni and international law prohibit imposing the death sentence on individuals who commit crimes while under age 18.
"The Yemeni government should uphold its own laws banning the execution of individuals who committed crimes as children," said Bede Sheppard, senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Samum may be facing imminent execution simply for the lack of a birth certificate."
Samum was sentenced for killing ‘Ammar Ahmad Husain al-Jumaili. A Yemeni child protection organization, Seyaj, contends that records in his court file prove that Samum was under 18 at the time.
Yemen retains the death penalty for a wide variety of offenses, among them murder of a Muslim, arson or explosion, endangering transport and communications, apostasy, robbery, prostitution, adultery, and homosexuality, in addition to various crimes against state security. In 1994 Yemen amended its criminal code to require non-capital sentences for crimes committed by people under 18, including a maximum penalty of ten years in prison for those who commit offenses that would carry the death penalty if they were adults.
However, Yemen lacks adequate mechanisms for determining ages of defendants who lack birth certificates, including adequate forensic facilities with staff trained to determine a defendant's age. According to the United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF), only 22 percent of births in Yemen are officially registered, highlighting the importance of having other reasonable procedures for allowing defendants to establish their ages.
"When governments fail to guarantee universal birth registration, the only fair approach is to give great deference to any available evidence suggesting that the defendant was under age," Sheppard said.
Since 1993, Yemen is known to have executed only one juvenile offender, ‘Adil Muhammad Saif al-Ma'amari, in February 2007. A court in Rawna sentenced al-Ma'amari to death on October 19, 2002, for the murder of a relative in an argument when he was 16. Al-Ma'amari told the court that he was under 18 at the time of the murder. Although the judge ordered a medical examination that resulted in an October 10, 2001 finding that he was under age 17, the court nevertheless imposed a death sentence. Al-Ma'amari had no legal assistance during the trial.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - international treaties to which Yemen is a party - ban the execution of offenders who committed a crime when under age 18. Only three countries - Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan - are known to have executed an individual since the beginning of 2009 for a crime committed before age 18.