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(Sanaa) – At least 142 people are being held in the Sanaa Central Prison in Yemen because of a debt or fine they are unable to pay. The prison director says he is holding 142 people for those reasons, though prisoners say there are many more. Yemeni authorities should release people imprisoned solely because they are unable to pay debts or fines.

The prisoners include people who cannot pay a private debt, those who owe diya, or “blood money,” to another family for committing a crime, and convicted criminals who remain imprisoned past the end of their term for inability to pay a fine. Many of these prisoners have been incarcerated for years without any possibility of release.

“Keeping an insolvent person in prison for a debt is not going to get that money back,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Prison should be reserved for people serving sentences for real crimes.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight prisoners in the Sanaa Central Prison, in Yemen’s capital. Three were imprisoned when a court convicted them of failure to pay a debt. The other five were in prison beyond their sentence time because they could not pay the fine associated with their sentence. One woman sentenced to 10 months and a fine for theft has been in prison for four years.

Yemen’s civil procedure code allows a judge to imprison someone who fails to execute a court order such as for payment of a debt or fine. While an exception can be made if the court deems the person insolvent, several inmates told Human Rights Watch that the courts did not take their financial situation into account or ignored their requests to prove insolvency, a claim backed by prison officials who had followed the cases.

Yemen’s criminal code permits judges to impose fines, usually the repayment of financial losses incurred by the victim, in addition to or instead of prison terms. For instance, a court may order a convicted murderer to pay diya to the family of the victim but may imprison the person indefinitely if they do not pay. Article 508 states that prisoners can only be released if they have fulfilled all of their financial obligations, unless “there is proof of the inability to meet such obligations.”

International human rights law, however, prohibits depriving a person of their liberty for failure to fulfill a contractual obligation. It requires governments to enact laws to prevent the imprisonment of people who cannot pay their debts. Furthermore, because prisoners in Yemen who are unable to pay their debts or fines face a potentially indefinite prison term unrelated to their sentence, their imprisonment may amount to cruel and inhuman treatment and violate the international legal prohibition against disproportionate sentences.

The imprisonment of debtors contributes to the massive overcrowding in Sanaa Central Prison, which has a capacity of 1,200 but is currently housing just under 2,500 prisoners. Saifan al-Hujairi, the prison director, told Human Rights Watch:

These prisoners should not be here, we already have a limited budget and mass overcrowding. At least those who are well behaved should be released immediately. On the other hand, Yemen’s constitution protects the rights of everyone and if a plaintiff is owed reparations, someone has to pay. If we released these prisoners without the victims receiving their payment, they would take justice into their own hands and kill them out of revenge.

On November 14, 2013, the Yemeni government paid the outstanding debts of 333 prisoners across the country via the Rehabilitation and Reform Authority, including 102 in Sanaa’s Central Prison. Each year the authority drafts a list of prisoners on a needs basis for whom the government pays debts and arranges for their release.

Yemeni law does not allow for additional detention in place of payment if the person is unable to pay. But among those imprisoned at Sanaa Central Prison are people who completed their prison term but were unable to pay the fine associated with their sentence.

In some cases, by keeping people in prison who have finished their sentences, the Yemeni justice system is impeding their ability to repay the rest of their debts. For example, Samir Muhammad Sinan al-Hitami, 39, a businessman who went bankrupt, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and required to pay investors 155 million Yemeni Riyal (YER) (US$721,000) in 2008. He was able to pay back all but YER50 million ($233,000) and has been in Sanaa Central Prison for more than four years beyond his original sentence.

“Paying some prisoners’ debts helps but it does not solve the issue of virtual debtors’ prisons,” Houry said. “Imprisoning people ‘for their protection’ is no justification for an indefinite sentence.”

International Law
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Yemen is party, in article 11 prohibits imprisonment “merely on the ground of inability to fulfill a contractual obligation.” The Arab Charter for Human Rights, which Yemen ratified in 2004, in article 18 prohibits “imprisoning a person whose insolvency to satisfy a debt arising from a contractual obligation has been judicially proven.”

In the past, many countries around the world have imprisoned people for debt. But currently only specific circumstances involving willful refusal to comply with a court order, such as a refusal to pay for maintenance ordered by the court while having the means to do so, are recognized as potentially justifying imprisonment.

In a landmark 1995 South African case abolishing the practice, the constitutional court found that “sending people to jail for not paying their debts” is neither reasonable, nor justifiable or necessary “in a democratic society based on freedom and equality.”

Prisoners of Debt
Anwar Ali al-Sayid, 35, was a businesswoman with investments in a factory in Aleppo, Syria and multiple real estate ventures including a wedding hall in Sanaa. The uprisings in the Arab world greatly affected her investments: Yemen’s uprising in 2011 forced her to shut her wedding hall and a bomb attack in late 2011 destroyed the factory in Syria. Investors took her to court seeking their money, and a judge ruled that she owed them a total of 450 million Yemeni Riyal (YER) (US$2.1 million). She sold all her assets and some of the investments were forgiven but she had a remaining debt of YER50 million ($233,000).

The judge ordered her to pay back that amount, but she has been held in prison for one year and three months because she is unable to pay. She says she asked the judge to allow her to prove insolvency, but the judge said that this would be reviewed “next time.” She made this request every time she appeared in court but received the same response each time.

“I think this system is wrong,” Sayid told Human Rights Watch. “What is the benefit of me being in prison? It does not help the government, nor me. If I was released I could benefit the economy.” She broke into tears when asked how her detention has affected her: “My daughters used to look up to me as an example. I wonder what they think of me now. My youngest, who is 5, has a jar by her bed that she keeps putting coins in. My family asked her what the jar was for and she said ‘I am saving the coins to get mommy released.’”

Samir Muhammad Sinan al-Hitami, 39, works in the prison’s laundry room. He was previously a member of Yemen’s chamber of commerce. He told Human Rights Watch that he went bankrupt and ended up owing other businessmen YER155 million ($721,000). These businessmen took him to court in 2008 and the court sentenced him to 18 months in prison for bounced checks and ordered him to pay the money back. He said he was able to pay all but YER50 million ($233,000) after he sold all his business and private assets.

He has been in Sanaa Central Prison for five years and seven months. He said he has requested the opportunity to prove insolvency each time he appeared in court, but was told there would be opportunities to do this “next time,” and was never was allowed to. He has two wives and nine children. He said he fears he will be here until he dies. “My life is destroyed economically, emotionally, socially,” Hitami told Human Rights Watch. “I have lost all hope.”

Hassan Muhammad Talal Benihamdan, 40, a Jordanian who has worked with the young prisoners in the prison’s juvenile unit for the last few years, was an investor in various medical and petrol ventures. He told Human Rights Watch that he went bankrupt and investors took him to court in 2009. The judge convicted him of bounced checks and sentenced him to five months in prison and ordered him to repay $343,000. Five years and four months later he is still in prison. He has a wife and two children, ages 11 and 9, who moved back to Jordan when he was imprisoned. “My kids do not know that I am in prison, it would upset them so much,” Benihamdan said. “It has destroyed me completely, and what does it help anyone for me to stay here in prison until I turn to dust? There are two solutions for me now – if I am lucky someone will pay on my behalf – that or death.”

Prisoners Unable to Pay Fines
Latifa Muhammad Ali al-Faqih, 34, is a housewife with one son. A criminal court convicted her for theft and sentenced her to one year in prison and ordered her to repay YER2 million ($9,300). She has now spent more than three years in prison because she has been unable to come up with the money. “Yemen’s system is worse than discriminatory; it only helps people with money,” Faqih told Human Rights Watch. “Since being here my mother had a stroke and died. My son, now 11 years old, is moving between different relatives and so is not going to school.”

Tawfiq Abdullah Muhammad al-Faqih, who says he is in his early 20s, was a pharmacy student. A criminal court convicted him in 2010 of theft and issued a sentence to cut off his hand. On appeal, after he had reached an agreement with the plaintiffs, his sentence was commuted to paying back to the victim 67 grams of gold, 2000 UAE Dirhams ($550), and YER54,000 ($250), but no prison sentence. “This system discriminates against you if you have no connections to the family or tribe of the prosecutor or a rich person who can pay for you,” Faquih said. “My incarceration has been terrible for my family. My mom used to be in excellent health, but now when I see her I don’t recognize her. She has diabetes and high blood pressure, and every time she comes to visit she just cries and cries. I deeply regret what I did, and now I will lose the most important years of my life.”

Lamya (a pseudonym), 26, was a secretary at Western Union when she was taken to court by a colleague alleging theft. She insists she is innocent but the judge convicted her and sentenced her to 10 months in prison and a fine of $58,000. She has been unable to pay the money back, and has been in prison for four years. She has appealed her sentence without success. She told Human Rights Watch: “My mother is very sick and knowing I am in prison might kill her. So for the last four years my family has told her that I am completing my studies abroad.”

Muammar al-Saqaf, 37, was a supervisor in a chocolate factory when he was convicted of fraud. A criminal court sentenced him to four years and ordered him to pay back YER23 million ($107,000). He has been in prison for six years and two months because he is unable to pay back the money owed. He says that he had a partner in the crime who was from a well-connected tribe and was able to pay his way out of a prison sentence.

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