Editor’s note: Priyanka Motaparthy is a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of “Look at Us With a Merciful Eye,” a new report about death sentences in Yemen for juvenile offenders. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
I met Hind in a prison in Yemen almost a year ago. Nineteen years-old, she wore an orange hooded sweatshirt, a long denim skirt, and the sullen expression of a teenager who trusts that no one is on her side. “Hind doesn’t want to talk to anyone,” a social worker told me.
Hind al-Barti was a child offender – under 18 at the time of the alleged crime – on death row in the Central Prison in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. She was convicted of a murder committed when she was 15, according to her birth certificate. Hind denied committing the crime, but didn’t want her story to be included in a report I was researching about child offenders facing execution in Yemen, fearing revenge by the murder victim’s family. Nine months later, on December 3, with little warning, a government firing squad executed her.
We examined the cases of 22 other alleged child offenders on death row in prisons across Yemen. At least three have exhausted all forms of appeal and, like Hind, could be executed without warning at any minute. Yemen’s 1994 penal code bans execution of child offenders. So does international law to which Yemen is a party. But these executions continue – the government has executed 15 in the past five years.
Yemen is one of only four countries in the world known to have executed juvenile offenders in the past five years. The others are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. It’s been a year since a new government took office following a popular uprising, pledging to move Yemen toward democracy and rule of law. But these promises have meant little for the child offenders in Yemen’s prisons, as they see new death sentences handed down on mere teenagers, who share their own stories of police abuse and judicial corruption.
A variety of factors mean the law carries little weight, including judges and prosecutors who simply disregard the ban, political and tribal pressure on government officials to approve the executions, and widespread skepticism in Yemeni society that children deserve special protection in murder cases.
Many child offenders end up on Yemen’s death row because they lack birth certificates – Yemen has one of the world’s lowest birth registration rates, and many Yemenis I met knew only their birth year, if that. But some child offenders on death row do have documentation proving their age. Some told me that judges and prosecutors simply ignored their evidence. One young man said a judge told him: “Even if you are 10 years-old, the punishment for murder is death.”
Three of the six alleged child offenders we interviewed said that police had tortured them, forcing them to confess. Walid Haikal, whose execution orders were signed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and could be carried out at any moment, told me he was 14 and in the seventh grade when the police arrested him and a group of men from his village for murder in 2000. “[The police would] shackle us like a chicken, put metal between our legs and do falaka. This means beating you with a wooden stick on the bottom of your feet. Of course you’d want to confess anything,” he told me.
In January, the young men and teenagers in Sanaa’s Central Prison decided they had had enough. When one of them, Nadim al-Aza’azi, was sentenced to death for a murder committed three years ago when he was 15, his fellow inmates went on a hunger strike. Seventy-seven signed a public letter demanding an end to death sentences and executions for child offenders, the creation of an impartial committee for determining age in past and future criminal cases, fair trial protections for all children, and trials only in juvenile courts for alleged child offenders. Human Rights Watch supports similar recommendations.
A few days ago, I returned to Sanaa Central Prison and found the hunger strike had ended. I asked a social worker who regularly visits the prison what had inspired such a dramatic action now, when many had been imprisoned for years. “Even in prison, the revolution had its effects,” she told me, referring to Yemen’s popular uprising in 2011. “They saw and heard what was happening outside in the square, on the streets. They wanted their rights too.”
The boys and young men I met in a Sanaa jail have set out a clear plan for Yemen’s new government to make good on its promises of reform. “I want the world to know that here they are executing [juvenile offenders],” one young inmate said.
On March 7 in London, donor governments known as the Friends of Yemen will meet to follow up on last year’s pledges of $7.8 billion in aid for Yemen’s new government, and to address challenges to reform. Should these donors – including U.K., the host – wish to be true friends to Yemen, they will urge Yemen’s leaders to listen to these forgotten voices. They will insist that Yemeni authorities abide by laws meant to protect Yemeni lives – not least of all, from unjust executions at the hands of their own government.