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Human Rights Watch: Yemeni government should stop child executions

National Yemen

Human Rights Watch and UNICEF representatives at a press conference condemning child executions. Photo : Jihan Anwar

By Maram Alabassi

Human Rights Watch (HRW) held a press conference condemning Yemen’s execution of juveniles on 5 March. Fifteen people have executed in the past five years that committed their crimes while underage, HWR said.

Yemen, a signatory to numerous international conventions, is obligated to stop the executions, children’s rights researcher Priyanka Motaparthy said.

“Yemen’s government should stop seeking and carrying out the death penalty for child offenders,” Human Rights Watch said in “Look at Us with a Merciful Eye: Juvenile Offenders Awaiting Execution on Yemen’s Death Row,” a report released this past week.

“President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi should immediately reverse execution orders for three alleged juvenile offenders on death row who have exhausted all appeals and could face a firing squad at any moment,” read the report.

According to the human rights organization, at least 22 individuals have been sentenced to death despite evidence that they committed their crimes while underage.

Most recently, a firing squad in Sana’a executed Hind al-Barti on 3 December, a young woman convicted of murder. Her birth certificate indicates she was 15 at the time of her alleged crime.

“President Hadi should break with Yemen’s past of arbitrary justice and state-sanctioned violence by reversing the execution orders of the three young men with signed execution decrees,” said Motaparthy. “Yemen’s penal code and international law prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders.”

Human Rights Watch visited the Central prison and interviewed five juvenile offenders on death row.

“Among those interviewed was al-Barti, who told Human Rights Watch in March 2012 that she had made a false confession after police officers beat her and threatened her with rape,” stated HRW. “Government authorities gave her family a few hours’ notice before her execution.”

“There is strong evidence that Hind al-Barti was just a girl when she was accused of murder, yet she was sentenced – and received – the ultimate punishment,” said Motaparthy. “The Yemeni government should have reduced her sentence if there was any reason to believe she was under 18 at the time of the crime.”

HRW spoke with other juvenile offenders about threats, physical abuse and torture at the prison, which led many of them to give false confessions, they said.

“They beat me with their hands, sometimes they would electro-shock me until I fell down,” Ibrahim al-Omaisy told HRW. “At that point if they had asked me, ‘Did you kill 1,000?’ I would have said yes out of fear.”

Yemen’s Penal Code has prohibited executions of juveniles who commit capital crimes since 1994. Many juvenile offenders have difficulty proving their age, however. The maximum penalty is 10 years for those who commit capital crimes under the age of 18.

HRW reports that Yemen has one of the lowest birth registration rates in the world. With a population of more than 24 million people, only 22 percent of births are registered. The numbers are even more stark for rural and poor populations, says HRW, citing UNICEF. Only 5 percent of births are registered in rural and poor areas.

“But even when the defendants have proof that they were under 18 at the time of an alleged crime, judges have blatantly ignored it,”  Human Rights Watch found.

Sentenced to death by a Sana’a trial court, Bashir Muhammed al-Dihar told Human rights during his sentencing that the judge disregarded his age at the time of the alleged crime, telling the court that “…‘even if he was 10 years old … the punishment for a murderer is death.’”

HRW reports that an appeals court has reduced Al-Dihar’s sentence to seven years based on his age.  “He told Human Rights Watch that he feared Yemen’s Supreme Court might reinstate the death sentence in his case.”

Yemen has approved both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which capital punishment is prohibited for anyone who has been underage when committing a capital crime.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen are the only countries in the past five years to have executed those found guilty of committing crimes as juveniles, HRW reports.  Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases, considering it “an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment.”