Yemen’s government should stop seeking and carrying out the death penalty for child offenders, Human Rights Watch said in a 30-page report released on Sunday.
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.
The 30-page report, “‘Look at Us with a Merciful Eye’: Juvenile Offenders Awaiting Execution on Yemen’s Death Row,” found that at least 22 individuals have been sentenced to death despite evidence that they were under age 18 at the time of their alleged crimes.
In the last five years, Yemen has executed at least 15 young men and women who said they were under 18 at the time of their offence. Most recently, on December 3, 2012, a government firing squad in Sanaa executed Hind Al-Barti, a young woman convicted of murder whose birth certificate indicated 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 Priyanka Motaparthy, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ending executions of juvenile offenders is a clear and straightforward way for Yemen’s government to show it honours its human rights commitments.”
Hadi should order a review of all death sentences where there is doubt that the individual was at least 18 at the time of the offence, and commute all sentences when evidence regarding an offender’s age remains inconclusive or in conflict, HRW said. Yemen’s penal code and international law prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders.
Human Rights Watch interviewed five young men and a young woman on death row in the Sanaa Central Prison, and reviewed case files for 19 other alleged juvenile offenders. 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. Government authorities only 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.”
Like Al-Barti, several juvenile offenders told Human Rights Watch that they faced threats, physical abuse, and torture in police custody, which they said led them to make 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.”
The three alleged juvenile offenders who have exhausted all appeals are Mohammed Taher Sumoom, Walid Hussein Haikal, and Mohammad Al-Tawil. Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, signed their execution decrees before he left office in February 2012. The president’s signature is the final step before carrying out death penalty sentences.
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.
Since 1994, Yemen’s penal code has also banned the execution of juvenile offenders and stipulates a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for individuals under 18 who commit capital offences. However, juvenile offenders faced serious obstacles when they tried to prove their age in court, Human Rights Watch found.
In some cases, defendants simply lacked the documentation to prove they were under age 18 at the time of their alleged crime. Yemen has one of the lowest birth registration rates in the world: among a population of more than 24 million, the government registers only 22 percent of births, and only 5 percent of births among poor and rural populations, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF.
Yemen’s government should also establish an independent review committee – separate from the office of the public prosecutor- to develop clear procedures and guidelines for determining a defendant’s age, Human Rights Watch said. The committee should have authority to examine both past and future cases, and should ensure that all juveniles accused of murder and other offences have access to an independent impartial age determination process that considers medical evidence, impartial records, and interviews.
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. Bashir Muhammad Al-Dihar, sentenced to death by a Sanaa trial court, told Human Rights Watch that during his sentencing, “the judge said that, ‘even if he was 10 years old … the punishment for a murderer is death.’”
In February 2013, Al-Dihar was told that an appeals court had reduced his sentence to seven years in jail 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 ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically prohibit capital punishment of anyone who was under 18 at the time of the offence.
When courts cannot establish conclusively that a defendant was 18 or older at the time of the alleged crime, international law indicates that the courts may not impose a death sentence. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, charged with interpreting the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), has stated that, “If there is no proof of age, the child is entitled to a reliable medical or social investigation that may establish his/her age and, in the case of conflict or inconclusive evidence, the child shall have the right to the rule of the benefit of the doubt.”
Yemen is one of only four countries known to have executed people in the last five years for crimes committed as children. The others are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment.
“The government has a real opportunity to prove its commitment to protecting children – the most vulnerable members of its population – by reversing execution orders in urgent juvenile offender cases, and observing its own prohibition on the death penalty for juvenile offenders,” Motaparthy said. “Sending child offenders before firing squads is hardly the way for Yemen to show that it respects human rights.”