At least 15 male and female teenagers have been executed by Yemen in the past five years, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. All were under the age of 18 when they committed the alleged offenses.
Since 1994, Yemeni law has prohibited the execution of those under 18; the maximum penalty they are to serve for a capital offense is ten years.
Hooria Mashhour, the country’s human rights minister, says that the executions still occurred because the accused have often not been in possession of a birth certificate to prove their age. Mashhour also told the Guardian that the judiciary has considered it “interference by the executive branch” when the human rights ministry has sought to intervene.
Given the political chaos and stagnation in Yemen in recent years, the lack of records, even birth certificates, is perhaps not surprising and the government’s heavy-handed justice on its young people all the more appalling. Indeed, a press release from Human Rights Watch observes that, with a population of more than 24 million, Yemen has one of the lowest birth registration rates in the world. Only 22 percent of births are registered overall and only 5 percent of births among poor and rural populations.
In the wake of the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis — many students and young people — staged demonstrations for months in Change Square in the capital, Sanaa, in 2011. Among their demands was for Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president for decades, to step down. A protracted struggle followed during which one of Saleh’s two generals sided with the protesters, the government lost control of its southern provinces to Islamist militants and Saleh claimed he would step down a number of times, only to withdraw his offers at the last moment.
The 30 page Human Rights Watch report describes the execution of a young woman, Hind al-Barti. She was only (according to her birth certificate) 15 at the time of a murder she was charged with. She was executed by a government firing squad on December 3, 2012. As Barti told Human Rights Watch, she had made a false confession after police officers beat her and threatened her with rape. Her family was only given a few hours notice prior to 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. 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,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The Human Rights Watch report describes other juveniles accused of crimes who said they had been physically abused and tortured into making false confessions:
“They beat me with their hands, sometimes they would electro-shock me until I fell down,” said Ibrahim al-Omaisy, one of the youths Human Rights Watch interviewed. “At that point if they had asked me,‘Did you kill 1,000?’ I would have said yes out of fear.”
[Walid Hussein] Haikal told Human Rights Watch that he was accused of murdering a man from his neighborhood in 2000, when he was in the seventh grade. He said that after his arrest, he spent two months at the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigations Division, and that police beat and tortured him throughout his time there, leading him to make a false confession.
Yemen’s current president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has been in office for the past year and sought to restore some kind of order to a faction-ruled nation whose economic situation has gone from poor to precarious. Human Rights Watch is calling on him to reverse the executions orders of three juveniles — Mohammed Taher Sumoom, Walid Hussein Haikal, and Mohammad al-Tawil — on death row. They have exhausted all appeals and could be brought before a firing squad at any moment.
As Motaparthy says, “Sending child offenders before firing squads is hardly the way for Yemen to show that it respects human rights.”
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