24 May 2013

Death row teenagers in Yemen

This article was first written for The Independent in relation to Unreported World on Channel 4 at 7.30pm Friday May 24th or on 4OD

“My hands were tied. The doctor drew a circle on my back around my heart. I was to lie on the sand for the executioner to shoot me. Then I heard the phone call”. Hafedh Ibrahim’s words trip mechanically off his tongue as he describes being moments from the carrying out of his death sentence. I feel guilty making him relive it for my television camera.

Especially because, being television, I make him relive it again “just one more time, please Hafedh, show me where the pile of sand was”. The memory is clearly painful, more so for all the friends who never got a clemency call from the president’s office.

During the seven years he spent on death row Hafedh used to wait up with every prisoner on their last night, sharing their last meal, talking about their lives, refusing to sleep as long as he could so that when the condemned men were led out to the executioner in the morning he’d collapse in tiredness and sleep through the sound of the shots.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy with Hafedh Ibrahim

AbduRahman Al Alimi in Taiz prison

Hafedh was just 16 when he was put on death row. He says the killing he was blamed for was an accident. Like virtually every boy in rural Yemen, Hafedh was given a gun as a teenager. Carrying it one day he was mugged and in the struggle the gun went off killing an innocent bystander. “I had no intention of killing him. But the weapon was in my hands. I thought about his family every day and always felt if they wanted to take my life then I could understand that.”

In court Yemen’s Islamic judges treated Hafedh as an adult, as they traditionally did anyone over 15, and sentenced him to death. That sentence is illegal for juveniles in Yemen but the sharia courts are famous for sometimes preferring their own standards. “The main problem”, says Hafedh, “is that they don’t recognise official documents. They don’t accept the killer is a child. The judges and the prosecutors try to break law in different ways to get the execution verdict. “

In Hafedh’s case the mercy call came only because his campaigning was noticed by Amnesty International who took up the case with the former dictator President Saleh who was trying to shore up his regime from the threat of al-Qaeda with western allies like the US and Britain. That was six years ago. Yet today, post Arab Spring uprising, with Yemen in the middle of a national dialogue on a democratic future its prisons are still full of people awaiting execution for crimes commited as children. Two have been shot dead this year despite international human rights campaign.

Hafedh worked hard for his school exams in prison. On being released there was only one place he wanted to go: law school, to fight for those he’d left behind. On getting there he found one of the judges who sentenced him to death was one of the professors. He qualified and went straight to the case of his best friend in prison, Mohammed Hazaa, who was executed in March this year, despite arguing all along that the murder for which he was convicted took place when he was a juvenile.

In their last conversation before his execution Mohammed told Hafedh of a young boy whose case was urgent. AbduRahman Al Alimi had been just 16 when he was arrested after his brother-in-law was killed in a tribal family feud. Mohammed believed the boy’s story that he’d been wrongly blamed and knew he could end up on death row too. Suspecting it might be too late to save himself he made Hafedh promise to save the boy. That is why Hafedh had come back to his old prison again. “Mohammed died but AbduRahman will survive”, he says, with a steely determination.

It will not be much easier than saving Mohammed. Vast numbers of Yemenis in the poor rural areas don’t know their birthdays and their parents didn’t bother with birth certificates. Documents are often forged and rarely trusted, giving the judges more reason to discard the claims of juveniles. The Yemeni prosecutors get doctors to X-ray suspects and estimate age from the density of the bones. It is regarded around the world as having a margin of error of between a few months and a couple of years. AbduRahman’s bone-age density test left the doctor saying he was three years older than he claims : old enough to be executed. That is despite school records and identity papers saying otherwise. The method is so controversial two of the forensic pathologists in the Yemeni Attorney General’s office have handed their resignation in protest in the last month.

Amid the brutalities of the system there are contradictions too. When Hafedh entered the prison to meet AbduRahman he was welcomed as a returning hero by the inmates. They crowded around, kissing him enthusiastically, shouting out and telling him of new cases he should fight. But the prison soldiers seemed just as pleased to see him. The man who would have witnessed his execution gave him a warm embrace and turned to me to say “He’s a good man. A very good man. ”



Later that week I followed Hafedh to court as he went to argue the case of the teenager AbduRahman. This was to be the day the boys age was settled. A victory would mean he’d be transferred to the juvenile system and there’d be no question of the death penalty. Yemen’s courts are open to the media and at first we were given permission to film. But once they realised what case and issue we were following the whole court was adjourned and everyone sent home.

The judge claimed the court reporter who takes notes had failed to show up. That’s despite the fact one of the usual staff was standing in the room. Speaking alone the judge asked Hafedh to split whatever money he was being paid for the case. “I’ve always known under the table deals go on but I’ve never been asked so directly for a bribe” said the young lawyer, anxious that AbduRahman’s case might now depend on corruption.

What is clear is that the post-Arab Spring government does not respond well to outside pressure. In March Human Rights Watch and other organisations tried to raise the whole question of juvenile executions with an international campaign. Within days Mohammed Hazaa had been executed. And those organisations have still to be given the kind of access given to Channel 4.

In two weeks we met dozens of prisoners who claimed their crimes were carried out while they were juveniles. We met several teenagers who said their cases were going back to court as the families of victims tried to argue they were in truth adults eligible for the death penalty. The fact a television documentary team were allowed into Yemen’s prisons and given access to controversial cases suggests the people in charge want change too.

Right now it is left to people like Hafedh Ibrahim to take all those cases on. He does it voluntarily, in the spare time from his government job. “Having escaped jail are you now trapped by a need to fight these cases?”, I wondered. “Yes”, he replies “now I have a wife and baby I try to get on with my own life too. But I often wake up suddenly in the night thinking of people like AbduRahman in prison, worrying what I must do to stop him being killed.”

A version of this article also appeara in The Independent

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