Earlier this month Yemen made international headlines, this time not for its fructuous progress toward building democratic state institutions but rather for a much somber reason, the scheduled execution of a man, who, at the time of his crime was a juvenile.
Not only did the announcement raised inherent issues related to the human condition and one's right to revenge a death through another, it put the matter of juvenile offenders and their status in the justice system back on the world agenda.
Despite calls from Human Rights Watch (prominent rights group organization) and UNICEF Yemen carried it out Mohammed Abdel-Karim Mohammed Haza's death sentence last Saturday, prompting widespread condemnation, both in and out of Yemen.
Rights activists were keen to deplore President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi inaction toward such a blatant violation of international law, especially on the wake of Yemen National Dialogue Conference, as the exercise is meant as Yemen first step toward national reconciliation and cornerstone of the country's newly found democratic aspirations.
Mohammed Abdel-Karim Mohammed Haza
According to state records, Haza was first convicted of murder in 1999; he was 17 years old at the time. Since the law prohibits a minor from being sentenced to death the court asked for "blood money"to be paid instead and a jail term to be carried out.
Blood money is a term known in Islamic jurisprudence as the amount to be paid by the murderer to the family of the deceased in compensation of the crime committed and also to ensure that the murderer does not get killed in return.
According to Sharia and the Yemeni law, the punishment for premeditated murder is death (to be carried out by a firing squad) unless the family of the deceased pardons the murderer and agrees to accept the blood money.
A court of appeal subsequently changed the terms of his sentence as a judge estimated Haza was 18 at the time of the crime, condemning him to death. Despite the fact that only one judge out of the three assigned to his case questioned his legal age, his death sentence was registered as anonymous and passed on to the judiciary authorities.
On April 14, 2008 Yemen Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence without re-examining the issue of Haza`a's age. Then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed Hazaa’s death warrant later that year.
Early March, Human Rights Watch began its anti-death penalty campaign, calling on President Hadi to directly intervene in Haza's case by commuting his sentence and ordering a review of his case file by a court as to clear questions related to his age.
It is important to note that beyond the issue of age, lies the concept of self-defense in Yemen judicial system. Haza who was found guilty of murder, was put in this situation because he made the snap decision to shot the intruder who had trespassed on his home and whom he believed would harm his family.
The man died later on from his wounds.
Such cases are legion in Yemen and often lead to great many injustices as the justice system seems to be more sympathetic to injured criminals than those whose home they invaded, intruded on or lives they violated.
Yemen, juvenile offenders and the death penalty
While many countries, such as the United States of America refuse to align themselves with rights groups' vision in regards to the death penalty, reserving the right to sentence their criminals to pay the ultimate price in retribution of their crimes, veery few countries, actually only four countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen) are perpetuating the sentencing to death of offenders which at the time of their crime were still juvenile.
The execution of juveniles is prohibited under international law.
Since 1990 Amnesty International has documented 87 executions of child offenders in 9 countries: China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the USA and Yemen. Several of these countries have changed their laws to exclude the practice.
In July 1993 Yemen executed Naseer Munir Nasser al'Kirbi, 13 at the time of his execution and Adil Muhammad Saif al-Ma'amari, 16 at the time of his offence in February 2007. Haza's name will now be added to that list.
As per identified by Amnesty International, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, recognizes each person’s right to life. It categorically states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5).
The community of states has adopted four international treaties specifically providing for the abolition of the death penalty. Through the years, several UN bodies discussed and adopted measures to support the call for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.
In December 2007 and 2008 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted resolutions 62/149 and 63/168, calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Since then, other regional bodies or civil society coalitions adopted resolutions and declarations advocating for a moratorium on executions as a step towards global abolition of the death penalty.
Human Rights Watch now estimates 20 juvenile are currently standing on death row after they were found guilty by a court of law, while as many as 16 prisoners were executed over the past 6 years despite the fact they claimed to be underage at the time of the offense.
Such decisions were taken despite the fact Yemen reformed its penal code in 1994 to reflect international law, by prohibiting the execution of individual under the legal age of 18.
Jurisprudence in Yemen is for now taking over the text of law, creating a judicial vacuum where the law prohibits the death penalty for juvenile but in practice tolerate it.
Yemen Justice Ministry has almost always rejected Amnesty International and HRW findings.
Glimmer of hope in the dark?
With the world's attention focused on Yemen, activists are hoping foreign nations will use their political and financial influence over Yemen to open up a dialogue with high ranking officials and change the current dynamic.
But even if the state might not yet be interested in dealing with juvenile executions, mentalities are nevertheless changing in post-revolution Yemen with more citizens aware of the power a crowd can generate and the actions they can take toward promoting social change.
In January 2013, about 77 juvenile offender detainees went on hunger strike in reaction to the announcement of Nadim al-‘Azaazi' scheduled death sentence (a young detainee who at the time of the crime he was find guilty of alleged he was only 15 years old).
“Executing juvenile offenders is expressly prohibited in Yemen's Penal Code and international human rights law – the Yemeni authorities must live up to their obligations and overturn this death sentence immediately,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“The reports we've received from inside Sana'a Central Prison point to truly appalling conditions faced by juvenile offenders, and we urge the authorities to act immediately to ensure children are treated humanely and not kept behind bars for longer than their sentences," he added.
With rights organizations, activists and state officials from the Human Rights Ministry bent on changing Yemen judicial system there is now hope the central government might translate such calls for reforms into concrete steps, shining a light of hope of the many men and women awaiting for their fate to be decided.
In a comment to al-Jazeera, Fouad al-Ghaffari said Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights is taking steps to address the execution of juveniles.
"We are holding high-level discussions within the government about this. We are asking the justice system for more time. We need to develop a good system and specialists to determine birthdates, and international support."
Priyanka Motaparthy, a Human Rights Watch researcher warned that unless the state was to enforce the application of its 1994 penal code reform, prohibiting the execution of juveniles, judges throughout the country will continue to hand out death sentences regardless of one's age.
"Even in cases when juvenile offenders and lawyers were able to produce strong evidence suggesting they were under 18 for their alleged crime, judges and prosecutors have disregarded Yemeni law and called for death sentences," said Motaparthy.
As Yemen is soon to embark on the second phase of its transition of power through its National Dialogue Conference one would hope state officials would seek to convey an atmosphere of forgiveness conductive to tighten and renew ties of friendship between the people of Yemen as well as attest of the state's desire to inspire trust to its citizens.